Commentary: Why we should embrace the joy of dressing ‘outside of the lines’ like Gen Z
Gen Z fashion revolves around picking trends and mixing ideas for self-expression and creative exploration. Academics from the University of South Wales highlight what we can learn from young people.
CARDIFF, Wales: Have you seen that cargo pants are back? Young people are once again swishing down hallways, and they might even be wearing Crocs on their feet because these are cool now too. For many this could be seen as dressing “badly”, but Y2K (2000s fashion) is all the rage at the moment.
Fashion has long been one of the most creative playgrounds to express yourself and also define your personal identity and status. Gen Z takes this very seriously. However, they are no mere followers of fashion but are adventurously carving out their own trends and styles - joyfully playing with the way they dress and express themselves through their clothes.
Gen Z is rejecting everything from outdated gender tropes to curated colour schemes and the idea of the “perfect” body.
For several hundred years, it was the fashion industry that controlled what was on trend. It was in bed with the media, style icons, designers and the tycoons of the industry. This relationship has enabled trends to be predicted, aesthetic movements to be planned and consumers to be catered for. The masses watched and waited to be told what was new and “hot”.
This relationship is now being short-circuited by a generation of digital natives who live in a world where the distinction between the digital and the physical is blended.
Gen Z will not be dictated to, they are not anxiously waiting to be told they are on trend. On social media they are making their own trends by breaking rules, embracing creativity and finding joy in dressing bravely.
THE DEMOCRATISATION OF FASHION
Each generation has changed fashion. The baby boomers brought us flower power in the 1960s and 1970s using free love in contrast to their parents’ clearly defined social and gender roles.
Boomers’ younger siblings brought us “punk” in the 1970s and 1980s, a subculture dedicated to using the symbols of the state against itself and deliberately playing with the obscene and vulgar. This was amid a global political climate of conservatism and repression.
Then again in the 1990s we saw grunge, Gen X’s response to a futureless world post-cold war.
Well, Gen X have had children and those kids have decided that they find joy in dressing outside of the lines (so to speak), you can be anything, you can be everything, and you can be nothing.
Gen Z (and even the millennials) have witnessed the ever-increasing democratisation of fashion through social media sharing and the global reach of online platforms. They have seen thousands of tiny subcultures formed online where they undergo a near-constant cycle of evolution, explosion and reformation.
Take the early 2000s “emo” trend. Once a big subculture, it was thrust to the corners of the internet where everyone thought it would languish and die.
However, emo is experiencing a revival with people wearing all black, corsets becoming cool again and heavy eye makeup being sported by the likes of Gen Z darlings Willow Smith and Olivia Rodrigo.
But Gen Z is not sticking to one style. Fashion has become a pick and mix of trends and ideas where an individual can use the ingredients to create and recreate identity as often as they desire. There is joy in dressing, not fear. There are no rules.
As new fashion consumers gleefully reinvent notions of good taste and beauty, the traditional trickle-down effect for trends has been replaced by a bubbling up from new sources defining what’s new and what’s next. From Instagrammers to icons, vloggers and TikTokkers, the sources for trends are broad and varied.
Young people are creating their own place in a new world. A world where Crocs are high fashion and what “goes” is in the eye of the beholder. Boxers as a headdress or leggings as a scarf? Sure. Why not even wear a keyboard as a top? Maximalism is being taken to new extremes as clothes are layered over more clothes and no colour, object or pattern is out of bounds.
These are the “COVID kids”, a generation that came of age during a global calamity where the only form of communication was digital and two-dimensional.
The loudest and boldest and most insane outfit is the one that will get you the most attention on the screen. For kids used to consuming media through TikToks rather than glossy editorials, only the most dramatic, fun and playful will do.
Fashion has taken itself way too seriously for way too long. A cleansing fire of young, creative people is exactly what is needed right now. We should all take a page out of their book and find joy in dressing in whatever we want.
Steven Wright is Head of Subject - Fashion Marketing and Photography at University of South Wales. Gwyneth Moore is Course coordinator for Fashion Design at University of South Wales. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.