When Did Chaos Become The New Cool?

By Julia Gessler
Street style at Copenhagen Fashion Week. Photo / Getty Images

Over the past few months, online, a mood of heedless abandon has continued to accumulate. Don’t bother washing off yesterday’s smudged mascara. Pour the last crumbs from the packet in your mouth. Make plans against algorithmic perfectionism by doing something unapologetic. Know that you have permission to chase joy, however it looks to you.

The general idea seems to obey a logic of chaos. The worst versions of this new literature are destructive. At best, they offer the promise of living your best life possible.

“Today,” wrote Mia Mercado recently for The Cut, “I am announcing my official retirement from trying to have ‘main-character energy.’ I no longer wish to have a Hot Girl Summer or be the leading character in this movie called life. I have found my new calling, courtesy of @Lolao on TikTok, and it is having a “side-character” summer.”

She continued, her attitude fun and untethered and inconsequential: "I do not long to be the hero, made to save the day and show personal growth, I wish to be Cousin Greg in season one of Succession, confused and simply present."

Feral Girl Summer, which communicates a leisure of tousled, unwashed hair and devil-may-care surety; Hot Regression Summer, a retreat from self-improvement; and Gremlin Girl Winter, a close, blanket-ensconced relative of “goblin mode”, a sort of spiritual-level embrace of slobbing out, are other, sibling categories.

Bella Hadid’s eclectic off-duty outfit in April. Photo / Getty Images
Bella Hadid’s eclectic off-duty outfit in April. Photo / Getty Images

Each variation of the trend name is a kind of catnip: punchy, bite-sized descriptors that can be transplanted into headlines and that were made for hashtags. They are unusually fun in the way that nicknames are fun, an inside joke communicating something ultimately knowable: a vibe shift. The word “unhinged” is commonly used in reference. Their tone is collectively palliative, escalating back and forth between “f*** it” and “f*** you”.

The internet’s long “getting real” moment, which in its early days saw influencers on Instagram write captions that read more like personal essays, and post photos that seemed plucked from behind the scenes in a moment of pure honesty, is well documented.

While previous iterations were largely about plating up catharsis and aspiration in equal measure (a complicated mix of proximity and perfection), this new kind of self-broadcasting feels also like a corrective, a rewriting of our capital and natural assets to correspond to our distress, buying clothes that feel as frayed as we are and wearing our hair as carefree as the world dictates we can’t be (read: climate change, the dismantling of Roe v Wade, the cost of living).

Marianna Manson, for Grazia, argued that "goblin mode" had "been adopted by the zeitgeist to justify the version of ourselves unfit for public consumption and for women especially, that version often involves time and money spent preening and the perpetual self-scrutiny of everything from our body language to the way our hair looks that comes with being primarily a decorative ornament."

Why, she wondered, “do we need a funny word to excuse just being comfortable at home?” Does the leveraging of less-polished personas, by spotlighting them, signal a way out of idealised versions of womanhood and female desirability?

Colina Strada spring/summer 2022. Photo / Supplied
Colina Strada spring/summer 2022. Photo / Supplied

On Instagram, I scrolled past a post by American Vogue. In it was Legally Blonde's Elle Woods, wearing a bright pink halterneck dress and a smile. "Cringe Girl Summer," proffered the caption. "To put it simply, for the next three months or however long three-digit temperatures hold out wherever you live the idea is to allow oneself to be as embarrassing as possible because ... why not?" The comments rolled in: "This caption is cringe, leave Elle Woods out of this," "Elle Woods ain't a cringe girl," "Oh so normal human being summer?"

Singer Lorde recently wrote in one of her semi-regular newsletters about how she felt her appearance what she described as a canvas or raw tool was being skewed.

“I realised my brain is getting programmed to want what the algorithms want when it comes to female physical form, just by sheer exposure to these systems and the current beauty standards,” she said of her relationship with the internet. “The algorithm doesn’t want to see certain things, and therefore I’ve stopped looking for them.”

The idea of going against this literal and figurative frictionlessness was like examining the state of her nutrition: identifying under-performing needs and filling them. “In the same way that I eat bitter greens or dank fermented foods, [I’m] going to make an effort to incorporate different flavours when it comes to form. Incorporate the grotesque, the masc, the statuesque, the jacked, the magnificent.” Growing out her unibrow, she said, will be her entry point.

For Auckland-based stylist Franca Chase, it also strikes a nerve of possibility. She describes her style as “something slightly glamourous, something slightly disastrous, something a bit dangerous”. Franca explains, “At this point in time, we are in a period of change and transition, where nothing is super-sticking.”

Dries Van Noten, autumn/winter 2022. Photo / Supplied
Dries Van Noten, autumn/winter 2022. Photo / Supplied

Poet Tayi Tibble is currently playing “Bratz dolls with her human avatar” a la bougie bohemian Y2K video vixen aesthetics: gaudy, flashy, with sense.

“I think in social media discourse there is some conflation of authenticity having to be you, real, raw and unfiltered but I don’t think that’s true,” says Tayi. “It’s kind of what I learnt from the gay community, and from my trans friends especially, that authenticity isn’t necessarily what you were born with, or ‘you’ without the excess."

“Authenticity is the choices you make, when you have the opportunity to make them informed and independently; when you decide exactly what you want, love, collect and pile on. So, to me, the importance of an authentic visual identity is related to a desire for self-determination; my own personal tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake. It’s about honouring my whakapapa in its many manifestations from my ancestors to the art I find beautiful by referencing them and representing them visually. It’s venerational and important.”

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