Fashion journalist Alice Pfeiffer may be able to boast of having some of the most coveted pieces from the greatest designers in her wardrobe. However, she also has an affection for clothes, accessories and objects that can be described as cheesy, kitsch, over-the-top, or even totally has-been and not only does she admit, she embraces it. It's this passion that led her to write her newly released book "Le goût du moche" [A taste for the ugly]. A passion that is likely shared by many of us. We spoke with the author who proves that "ugly" is not simply a question of taste.
What does "ugly" really mean?
We often put 'ugly' and 'beautiful' in opposition, but it's much more complex than that. Ugly refers to that which gets ridiculed and mocked a bit. It is something less serious, often treated with a certain disdain. I found it interesting to see all we could do or have in the realm of ugly, which makes us laugh, or which we feel a bit all-powerful in the face of as a human being. In the end, ugly encopasses a lot of facets that we can't really define. It can be kitsch, cheesy, vulgar, old-fashioned, or a total miss, and it can also be a zone of reappropriation for many contemporary artists. But what really interests me is that the term 'ugly' ultimately is applied to everything that we can't name, everything that we can't define. There is an air of mystery that floats around 'ugly.'
But isn't it very subjective?
Extremely. What's 'ugly' is specific to each era, to each social class, and even to each generation. That's why I say in the book: 'tell me who you find ugly, I'll tell you who you are.' When I was in my 20s, I remember wearing clothes that my mother thought were ugly, but for me it was a form of modernity. That's also why the opposite of ugly is not necessarily beautiful. It can be futuristic, unexpected, or 'provocative'.
What triggered your taste for 'ugly' things?
I grew up with parents who were very intellectual, very hippie -- for example, everything was recycled -- and as a result I developed a taste for everything that was forbidden. At the beginning, I remember, it was just the "M" of the Super M that flashed -- I loved that. Essentially, I was deprived of capitalism and so I dreamed of its trappings! I loved everything that was shiny, everything that flashed, everything that was ultra-gendered, everything that was ultra feminine. I loved everything that I didn't have access to.
You talk about ugly as a "reflection of your privileges," a "statement," or more generally, as a way to be different. Does dressing "ugly" essentially mean a person wants to stand out from the crowd, to shun certain diktats?
Liking what's ugly is indeed about making a statement. We don't really ask ourselves many questions about what is ugly. Liking what's ugly doesn't mean thinking about what ugly is. We say to ourselves that the ugliness of this or that is taken for granted, we like it, and thus it's part of our own social makeup. The starting point of the book is that I love 'ugly' things. And so I asked myself if loving ugly things was in fact turning on its head the stigma of what is beautiful, or what is good taste, which can be completely tyrannical; or, on the contrary, if I myself was reproducing another process of distinction. Because by saying that I like what's ugly, I'm also saying that I'm not afraid to be associated with the people that one associates with this ugliness. I'm not afraid of being called cheesy.
You work in the world of fashion, which is very exacting. What are some of the daily reactions you've faced in this environment?
I think they're unsure whether I have very bad taste or if I'm just very daring. That's what they'll usually tell me. Is it deliberately provocative? Am I completely off-track? Or, on the contrary, have I understood it all? In any case, I am in the same places as they are. But, generally speaking, it makes them laugh more than anything else.
For several seasons we have seen a real trend for ugly or cheesy fashions: dad shoes, bucket hats, cycling shorts, puffer vests. How do you explain that?
Yes, what you are describing is a certain normcore that I also partake in. I wear fleeces and big white sneakers -- by the way, Crocs are back too. This can be explained by the fact that a certain chic has become extremely mainstream. This is the basis of Pierre Bourdieu's "La Distinction," which explains that the day the masses have access to the codes of the bourgeoisie, the bourgeoisie will reject these codes and will even do the exact opposite. There is a real mainstreaming of things that were originally only reserved for an elite, and I think that this elite has chosen to go the opposite way, and in a way to mock the classes that had imitated it.
You divide "ugly" into tacky, trashy, and disgusting. But will what is ugly or trashy today be so in 10 years? Isn't it just a question of context, interpretation, or even generation?
Yes, totally. And it's moving very fast. I can see that the new fashionistas, who are in their 20s, wear things that I find objectively awful, but for them it's already another layer, another reading. What we find beautiful today may indeed be what's ugly tomorrow.
We can associate ugly with the out-of-fashion or has-been, but by definition, doesn't all fashion, by essence, go that route?
Fashion starts off by not being has-been but it makes the season before has-been in order to become fashionable. It's a game, it's a tension that actually exists between the different fashion cycles. And each requires a vision of the other.
What are your ugliest pieces that you wouldn't give up for the world?
Definitely all the animal prints, but also the XXL hoop earrings with "Sexy Baby" written inside. That's exactly the kind of stuff I wear.
This interview has been translated from French.
*"Le goût du moche" by Alice Pfeiffer is published by Editions Flammarion .