what is fashion

Like Sacha Baron Cohen, Fashion Is Trolling America

Sacha Baron Cohen in Who Is America? Photo: Showtime

Fashion happens faster than ever these days. Each week, we attempt to make sense of it in a column called, “What Is Fashion?”

An embarrassing thing happened to me at Kith Soho a few weeks ago — even more embarrassing than the mere fact that I (an herb) was at Kith (a hypebeast emporium). I was on the hunt for what the fashion world calls “dad shoes” or “ugly shoes.” Specifically, I wanted a pair of all-gray New Balance 990v4s, which are the footwear equivalent of a refurbished PT Cruiser.

In an attempt to conceal my thirst, I asked the salesperson whether or not the 990s were “good for walking around in” before requesting my size. (Classic dad question.) “Funny you say that,” she replied, leaning in a little closer. “These shoes were actually designed for walking around in. Dads used to be the only ones who wanted them. But now, fashion people are tying to look like dads, which is why we have them in stock.” 

For a brief moment, I was offended that this woman actually thought my prerogative was power-walking. But then I was overcome by the embarrassment of having a fashion trend explained to me in the act of shopping — let alone this fashion trend. It’s like explaining the punchline of a joke instead of telling it.

“Ha,” I said to the salesperson, letting out a pitiful chuckle. “That is funny.” I bought the shoes, but the joke was on me.

A few days later, I was power-walking through Prospect Heights in my totally-not-funny new dad shoes when I saw an adult man wearing the same pair. He styled them with ankle socks, cargo shorts, and a short-sleeve buttoned-up shirt, which in the olden days would have made anyone a dead ringer for a dad. But in this fashion moment, I had no clue.

Just this week, The New Yorker published a not-at-all-funny article titled “The Prada Flame Shirt Is Performance Art.” Inspired by the ubiquitousness of a certain flamboyant flame-covered Prada button-up among celebrities, Troy Patterson wrote that the garment resembled an “elevated version of an embarrassment perpetrated by one’s father at a backyard barbecue.”

This isn’t just about dressing like dads, though. It’s about being unable to tell whether anyone is joking or not — a trend that permeates every aspect of our lives today, from politics to popular culture. Last week, for example, infamous prankster Sacha Baron Cohen returned to television with his new Showtime series, What Is America? Instead of playing Ali G, S.B.C. traverses the country in a variety of disguises revealing just how Bad and Stupid we all are.

Watching Who Is America?, I felt a more extreme version of the secondhand embarrassment I experienced at Kith. Obviously, buying New Balance isn’t as shameful as promoting guns for kindergartners (although even ugly sneakers can’t escape politics.) But these kinds of jokes operate by creating in-groups and out-groups. You don’t have to actually think they’re funny (they’re not that funny), just as long as you’re on the right side.

Fashion has always been about the art of performance. But there seems to be something more sinister at play now. We’ve taken to calling it a “troll,” or internet parlance for overt absurdity that makes those who take it seriously seem gullible. “Fashion is trolling the masses,” Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan wrote last week, citing current trends like fanny packs, prairie dresses, and, yes, “chunky orthopedic” dad shoes.

It used to be that you could spot a troll based on context. But in an age when references are layered ad infinitum in order to provoke a reaction, our signifiers blur together. You can’t even tell when people are Russian spies anymore! If I saw Maria Butina’s shirtless Vladimir Putin iPhone case today, I might have thought it was by streetwear designer Heron Preston, who sold a $594 bedazzled T-shirt with Putin’s face on it earlier this year.

Are designers trying to make us look stupid by selling us ugly sneakers and platform Crocs? Are they trying to be funny? Are they making some larger philosophical point? I don’t think it’s anything this complicated. What they want, in the end, is our attention, because it translates to dollars. Today, luxury is being in on the joke. And brands are laughing all the way to the bank.

Like Sacha Baron Cohen, Fashion Is Trolling America