The new F-word

Hannah Betts on the latest bête noire for Generation Z

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Why do we wear clothes? The mundane answer runs “for protection against the elements”, pointing to the succession of Ice Ages to which homo sapiens was subjected, forced to borrow fur from more hirsute species.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The ancient civilisations that grew up in the fertile valleys of the Euphrates, the Nile and the Indus, were more tropical than a Wham! video, and clearly using their outfits to signify status, occupational, sex and gender differentiation.

Not so long ago, “flattering” was considered feminist, now amorphous androgyny is the thing

Some may even have wanted to be regarded as individuals — despite we modern types imagining we invented all that — cutting a dash with a tufted Mesopotamian fringe here, or supple  Egyptian weave there.

I raise the question because the issue of why we dress is feeling modish again, and not merely because the great grounding brought about by Covid has made comfort king.

The costumes of both genders had been heading in this direction already — what with normcore, athleezure, and the lemming-like “casualisation”. But, I’m talking about something else here, a resistance to the at-one-time uncontroversial notion of what is “flattering”, a term now considered oppressive by the young.

To quote the Guardian’s Jess Cartner-Morley, never backward about coming forward in identifying a zeitgeist moment: “For Generation Z — roughly speaking, those born between 1995 and 2010 — ‘flattering’ is becoming a new F-word.

“To compliment a woman on her ‘flattering’ dress is passive-aggressive body-policing, sneaked into our consciousness in a Trojan horse of sisterly helpfulness. It is a euphemism for fat-shaming, a sniper attack slyly targeting our hidden vulnerabilities. ‘Flattering’, in other words, is cancelled.”

Or as one young whippersnapper puts it: “The issue with the word ‘flattering’ is that we instantly associate it with looking thin and therefore looking ‘better’. It suggests your tummy looks flatter, or that your waist looks smaller. I find it’s a phrase older generations use. Girls I speak to from Generation Z tend not to use it. Those girls see a diversity on social media that older generations didn’t. Celebrating your flaws is considered cool.”

To Gen X-ers and above — schooled on Trinny (Woodall) and Susannah (Constantine) seizing breasts and hoicking them skyward, while fretting over the most slimming knickers — this is enough to strike fear in the soul.

“You have to suffer to be beautiful,” we were taught, “No pain, no gain.” Only these days, “looking good” means looking old. Instead, clothing must be about (a specific type of) joy (shrouding oneself in) self-care, and — in practice — a new type of conformity.

I came across this phenomenon when I was taken in hand by a Gen Z stylist: a size-16 twenty-something, dogged in her attempt to ignore my actual body. Where I asked for v-necked, waisted numbers that exposed a bit of ankle, so she presented me with garb I deemed dreary, bland and shapeless.

Where I had demanded looks that were “retro, witty, feminine, full of bold colour — a real fancy-dress element” so she delivered the saddest sack- dresses, jeans and trainers, informing me that “Women want to blend in, they
don’t want to stand out.”

Reader, I was chilled to my very marrow; as counsels of despair go, I have rarely heard a more doom-laden one. Can looking shit ever be considered fashionable? Alas, as we know, the answer is “Yes”. And, this form of sartorial self-harm is lamentably au courant: tent- dresses, sweats, and fugly trainers included.

Not so long ago, “flattering” was considered feminist, an index of female fashionistas designing on the body as opposed to their gay rivals designing on paper for the boyish figures they found beguiling. Now amorphous androgyny is the thing, the concepts of womens- and menswear collapsing into something relaxed, inclusive and body-resistant. Cheers, Weinstein.

I’m not saying we should be decked out like dolly birds or boys, or don the hooker chic celebrated in Netflix’s La-la Land estate-agent hit Selling Sunset. That said, its standout star, 31-year-old Christine Quinn, is the embodiment of the no-pain, no-gain axiom.

Quinn is said to spend $1,000 a day on hair and make-up and be beset by constant migraines from her hair extensions. For a low-ley office supper she sported a goth Tweetie-pie outfit that rendered her barely able to sit, chains braided agonisingly into her ponytail; for a viewing, she was resplendent in platform stilettos so stratospheric she was forced to descend stairs backwards, clinging to a rail.

Asked about the theme for her engagement party, our heroine answered: “It’s just gonna be, like, casual, like, I just want stuff going on, like, no big deal, like sexual Phantom of the Opera.” Think: S&M bodycon while leading a zebra. I like this woman. I admire her fash-attitude. Sexual Phantom of the Opera is where I’m at. It’s who I am.

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