Now a decade behind us, fashions from the George W. Bush era are starting to take on a loaded, nostalgic meaning.
From My Chemical Romance’s emo skinny jeans to Paris Hilton’s celebutante skin brandishing and Cory Kennedy’s hipster dishevelment, Millennials are beginning to look back at the emotionally charged fashion subcultures of the Bush years — spawned in suburban garages, Bungalow 8’s bathroom stalls and in Brooklyn walk-ups — in the lead-up to November’s election. Such angst-y trends failed to take hold under the “assurance” of the President Obama years, designers say, but could perk up again with the advent of a new administration — particularly that of Donald J. Trump — and bubble up in collections emerging from spring to fall 2017.
Even a Hillary Clinton win, some say, would not yield a rah-rah result given that Millennials have not developed the same ardor for her that they have for Obama — or had for Clinton’s rival in the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders. With an election outcome that is inevitably bound to disgruntle numerous voters, it appears that fashion is due for a reactionary spin similar to the many visceral trends to emerge under Bush — yielding creative frustrations potentially helpful to the industry at large.
“We were content during Obama and now realize we’re not so safe and need to talk about it and figure it out — it starts the conversation of fashion,” said David Moses, codesigner for the gender-fluid label Vaquera. “The Obama election was the first one I could vote in. I was excited and remember how it was great to feel contentment and that we were safe, like, ‘Oh wow, I’m in good hands.’ But that doesn’t lead to good art.”
The Bush years provoked anger amongst liberal creative types and many attest that the climate fostered a “rage against the machine” attitude in their work. Obama’s tenure, by contrast, yielded faddish Internet subcultures and the passive-aggressive Normcore movement. Retailers worldwide presently cite a widespread consumer “disaffection” as the reason for their flagging numbers, reporting that shoppers from New York to Shanghai are pulling back on their consumption in light of global uncertainty, increased spending on experiences and few major shifts in fashion trends.
So what does this mean for fashion and art during the next administration? The answer might become more clear following tonight’s first presidential debate.
In creative circles in New York, designers, artists and thinkers are whispering how the election — particularly a Republican victory — could actually charge-up their creativity. Some designers — like Coach’s Stuart Vevers, and Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez — are already noting a shifting mood within their work, from apparel to accessories.
“I recently made a joke amongst friends that if for some reason Trump wins — think about how much we get to fight against the system and how much art will be made,” said photographer and model Marcel Castenmiller, who frequently collaborates with Steven Meisel and Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele.
“I think you always want something to react to, and I think politics can do that for sure,” said Vevers, Coach’s creative director, who has noticed a changing mood within his own work as of late. “I’ve been referencing people brave enough to make changes and stand up for things — I’ve definitely been celebrating the rebel.” (Take his spring 2017 collection for Coach 1941 shown during New York Fashion Week, which had a punk-rock undercurrent with none other than Courtney Love in the front row.)
Historically, according to sources, fashion tends to yield optimal creativity in times of political and economic unrest. “When one looks back in history — you see that after world wars, after bad things happen — great design comes out,” shoe designer Paul Andrew said. But he quickly added, “Of course, one can’t foresee the future, but all I can say is that I hope Donald Trump will not be the president.”
Artist Tom Sachs said of creativity’s cadence in light of unpopular government: “On an everyday level, the only [immediate] way to offer a controlled response to things or react is the way we dress — it’s the first level of action. It’s how we present ourselves, how we cut our hair and decorate our bodies. I think that there is great creativity and flexibility for action like that when times get out of control.”
Under Bush, creative temperaments often boiled — provoking designers to stage politically charged New York Fashion Week shows. Simultaneously, consumers nationwide exhibited tension with oppositional suburban subcultures and an obsession with brazen celebrity escapades (Paris Hilton, et al) that oddly coincided with a public demureness.
Tara Subkoff, founder of Immitation of Christ, the New York brand known for its political commentary during the Bush administration, once even had a Bush look-alike sit in the front row at her show, while a friend’s daughter pledged allegiance to the flag.
“We always tried to address the political context in lyrical ways, and the Bush administration offered plenty of fuel for our fires,” Subkoff said of how the political climate was imbued in her branding tactics.
Of fashion during the Obama administration, Subkoff said: “I do think there’s been some great collections throughout the last eight years, but I can’t see how the political environment has been a factor. Occasionally there’s a token political theme thrown into a show, but it often tends to become a pseudo-political commentary rather than engaged political art.”
The fashion subcultures to emerge in the last eight years under Obama — Seapunk, Health Goth and Vaporwave among them — were little more than a blip, their here-and-then-gone sensibility accelerated by the sophistication of social media. The most deeply rooted fashion subset to emerge in the last eight years — Normcore — is considerably pacifist in its commentary on consumption and branding when compared with the tactics of Bush-era movements.
While Bush-provoked fashions conveyed their messages with considerable volume, Normcore, by contrast, used khaki pants and New Balance sneakers as its medium of a message.
Subculture inquisitor and Sex magazine founder Asher Penn said of Normcore’s low-fi governmental tie-in: “It promotes true anonymity; it’s about as anonymous as you can get with a wardrobe and that style is very much a political response to our current moment of surveillance.” (Consider Edward Snowden, whose style is about as Normcore as one can be.)
As the U.S. prepares for the arrival of a new presidential administration, it would make sense that its fashion capital, New York, is sensing these impending changes in its design and style preferences.
Proenza Schouler’s McCollough said: “I think the world feels kind of messed up these days, especially lately it feels like a lot of turmoil. On a design level, it makes us want to go explore some world that’s almost about a fantasy to kind of remove ourselves from the chaos that surrounds everyone these days.”
Andrew added of his mood while designing shoes: “I think that there is definitely a feeling of austerity and simplicity — overall, ostentation looks wrong at the moment, which is why my simple silhouettes are selling the best. In the last six months or so, I think that with the run-up to the election and all the terrifying things in the world, it’s not a moment to feel ostentatious.”
Said Vaquera codesigner Patric DiCaprio, who identified as emo during the Bush years while attending a Christian school in Alabama: “Growing up with someone terrible in the White House really drove me to look outside myself and get online and meet different people and be in a band and change my style rather than being content. To make really good art, one has to be uncomfortable — it just sucks that means there has to be an a–hole in the White House.”
Sachs said of his outlook on the election: “[Hillary] is really the only choice — it’s like the choice between eating McDonald’s and eating glass. The McDonald’s is status quo, it’s disgusting, really the worst option. But eating glass is suicide so you have to eat McDonald’s if you want to survive.”