Without stating the obvious, something weird is happening in fashion: it’s going out the window. It was at the catwalk shows last September that I first noticed. For the most part the clothes – which were for spring 2023 – were works of art. But a lot of them also looked deranged. Dresses full of holes at Chloé, vivid crochet tops ripped at the seams at Marni, bras made from handbags at Givenchy and almost everywhere, trousers so wide they seemed to swallow up shoes. It wasn’t a mess, but it was messy.
It’s OK to be suspicious of the idea that fashion trends predict the future. It can all get very “hemline index” – ie the theory that short skirts are in vogue during economic boom times, and the longer they get, the more miserable the outlook. Sometimes a coat is just a coat. The amount of men’s underwear sold is not a perfect indicator of the direction of the economy. But as I watched one particular model wearing an unwalkably long, aubergine-coloured dress that pooled precariously around her heels, it honestly seemed to say – in a clipped French accent – that the economy, just like the model, wouldn’t just topple over, but would also struggle to get back up again quickly.
Trends come and go but clothes, like sport or music or art, reflect the societies they come from – and if the world is falling apart, at some point you are probably going to see that reflected in what people wear. Take Portia, the icon of chaos from the second series of The White Lotus, a sort of Annie Hall imagined by TikTok. Look too to Katie Holmes, channelling her Y2K Dawson’s Creek days in shiny, frayed-hem jeans on a red carpet; Michelle Obama on a book tour wearing a Marine Serre silk dress that someone had sliced into a top; Julia Fox wearing one made of leaves! And self-proclaimed “ugly hot fashion girlie” Meg Superstar Princess, wearing trucker caps and whatever she wants. Just this morning, I walked past a girl wearing a red skirt over jeans over just visible teal tights. Whether she was in designer clothes or simply got dressed in the dark, I’ve no idea. But that’s probably the idea.
Of course it helps to name the beast, and “schlumpy” is how Alex Bovaird, the White Lotus costume designer, describes Portia, the poster girl for this movement. Caught somewhere between “haphazard California” and “a Coachellan hangover”, a lot of what drives her character – and this trend – is circumstance. Portia doesn’t have a look, she simply has a collection of various moods, the clothing equivalent of the human condition. From her bizarre empowered-tween slogan sweaters, the incomprehensibly tiny cardigan over a clashing bikini top to a beach bar, to the strapless bra and matching flares combo she wore out on the town with her Essex boy Lothario Jack, “sometimes she doesn’t care … but sometimes she definitely [does],” Bovaird told me. She’s also skint. All in all, she’s someone most of us can relate to.
This hodge-podge look is also what Sean Monahan hinted at in his June 2021 Substack essay, Vibe Shift. A trend forecaster who was part of the collective that correctly predicted normcore 10 years ago, Monahan says that we’re due a new cultural movement. We had hipsters, then we had hypebeasts and now we have … whatever this is. The term “vibe shift” has been parsed through every medium imaginable, though it took off when New York magazine decided to unpack it. For Monahan, it could be “a return to a more fragmented culture”, a return to the “naughty aughties nostalgia”, a return to rock music and a return to irony. He admits he hasn’t quite landed on what that means for clothes, but one thing is certain: we won’t be queueing for trainers any more.
Of course no trend occurs inside a vacuum and for many of us, a return to early 2000s nostalgia – whether that’s indie sleaze, or late grunge, or just plain old schlumpy – can’t come soon enough. Fashion has spent the past few years besieged by a sort of hyper-curated, flat-pack, risk-averse millennial aesthetic. Bodycon dresses, Skims underwear and matchy-matchy co-ords in powdery shades of lilac and green; clothes without an edge, or at least with one that had been smoothed out by Botox.
Designed by algorithm, and driven by the internet, this look seemed to arrive with an inherent bias toward giving people what everyone else had. The clothes didn’t always cost the earth (a lot of this aesthetic is driven by fast fashion), and they didn’t always look neat. But somehow, scrolling through your feed, they looked as if they were part of a magically cool and tastefully confected tribe to which you had no way in.
Fastforward to now and, given the state of the economy and the climate, it’s not only hard to look like this; it’s weird. Enter schlumpiness, which isn’t just about saying no to trends and fast fashion and hyper-consumerism, it’s a full-on about-face – and a healthy one at that. (It helps, too, that the best way to “get the schlumpy look” is by rummaging through secondhand and charity shop rails rather than online at Shein.)
In addition, it just so happens that this whole vibe converges very nicely with the Oxford word of the year: “goblin mode”. This, among many things, is about consciously “rejecting social norms or expectations” – which clothes-wise, means leveraging chaos for likes. This might sound bleak. But as the word “mode” suggests, it’s quite deliberate. Could it be that, having spent the past five years staring at Emily Ratajkowski’s abs and Kim Kardashian’s waist, we’ve had enough of trying to look the part?
Like the most pervasive trends, this one is ambient, but it’s happening slowly but surely. In the same way that we all suddenly woke up in jogging bottoms and Birkenstock clogs in July 2020 – due in no small part to the pandemic – I’ve got a funny feeling that come spring 2023, we’ll all wake up looking as if we’ve been styled by crypto-bro Sam Bankman-Fried, as if dressing down in schlubby tees and shorts is less about working from home and more an act of defiance.
Of course a lot of this style comes down to taste. As my mother used to say of my pavement-dragging flares in the mid-90s, “they do nothing for you”, to which I’d reply “yeah, mum, that’s the point”.