Ours is an era of ghastly good taste and within it, a fool and her clothing are soon parted. In 1994, the ingenue Melissa George could wear the garb of an Elizabethan fool to receive her Best New Talent award at the Logies. These days, she’d fill her round hose with the ordure of shame rather than reprise that look.
Thanks to the efforts of stylists in an age that has no serious room for camp, kitsch or cleavage, the worst-dressed lists (so long a staple of entertainment journalism) can barely be distinguished from the best. It’s a good thing that Mr Blackwell, the father of the worst-dressed form, did not live to see this decade of decency. Then he would never have said, as he once did of Martha Stewart, “She dresses like the centerfold for The Farmer’s Almanac“.
This past week has produced two entertainment events of note and with them, the usual slew of post-Blackwell critique. Best-dressed lists for the MTV Video Music Awards and the Primetime Emmys say almost nothing at all save for “strapless gowns seem to be big this year”, and the worst lists say even less. The history of bad taste is almost at an end, and the best critique anyone could come up with was aimed at auteur Lena Dunham. It’s true that her gown owed less to body consciousness than it did to the dolls one’s grandmother used to conceal rolls in the lavatory. But when compared with, say, the great garishness of Cher, Demi or a Hugh Grant-era Liz Hurley in outsize safety pins, Dunham was as visually surprising as later Ken Done.
Even the women of the Brownlow Medal have been hounded into complicity with good taste. Where once we saw an Edelsten ideal of womanhood fuelled by Viagra wet-dreams and the urgent need for spectacles, we now see fishtail gowns, taupe lipstick and all the edginess of a butter knife.
Just as the great full-forward Brendan Fevola was censured for his high spirits, the ultra-hooker look of Versace has left the AFL.
When the code’s tallest timber is asked to refrain from drinking and its most glamorous footy molls taken out of their sparkles and poured into elegant Aurelio Costarella, you know there’s something up.
What is up is good taste, and bad taste has been nearly humiliated out of visible existence. We can only depend on the occasional imports by Geoff Edelsten of a Brynne or Gabi to remind us what good taste is by its absence. It is a shame to live in a time with so much modesty and so little of Gabi Grecko turning up to farewell the dead in a bustier snug enough to revive a corpse.
Good taste has taken precedence, and not only on red carpets, where once we saw so many delightful eyesores who stood as evidence that true class mobility was impossible. We can see it even in the shoddiest discount stores. To buy a floral umbrella or a pink faux-porcelain vase or a greeting card with a Pierrot on the front is nearly impossible. The relics of a time where one’s taste in home furnishings acted to signify one’s class can only be found in op shops; the dinner tables of the nation are Shaker-minimal or distressed chic, and its “bogan” customised vehicles are only tolerated on its roads at approved events like Summer Nats.
Melbourne’s Spring Racing Carnival is now less an opportunity to dress like a fuckwit or a two-dollar hooker than it is a branding exercise for the barely famous, eager to look unremarkable. This past decade, chicken tikka spray tans have drained from public life, and in their place are natural skin tones, earthy home furnishings and “classy” choices in design and apparel. It is no wonder that some young women are so cheesed by the panopticism of decency that they take to the town on Saturday nights wearing little more than a Swarovski sanitary napkin. If I were 20, I’d be sick enough of the Farmer’s Almanac hegemony to wear a G-string, too.
Jack Johnson drones on in everyday cafes. Warholian art, long since drained of its power, hangs on everyday walls. Mason jars are sold in two-dollar shops. Good taste has been democratised and the boho tchotchkes or Scandinavian Modern that was once a mark of social superiority is now standard.
You could argue, of course, that this masstige is a good thing; you could essentialise the matter of taste and say that at last, Classic Elegance is available to all. Except, of course, you’d be wrong. There is a universal foundation for good taste no more than there is a bustier than can fully contain Gabi Grecko. It’s just stuff, and it has always existed so that people can classify themselves by their ownership of it.
Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier, said the great theoretician of taste, Pierre Bourdieu. He was writing 40 years ago, though, at a time in the West when those wealthy enough to understand cultural capital shielded themselves from the rain with a British Fulton while the rest of us just made do with a cheap floral parasol. Now, in our ultra-liberalised era, we all seek protection from The Very Best, or at least a copy of it.
What classifies us now is our great absence of taste or, more particularly, our default to what we imagine the taste of a ruling class might look like. “Bad taste”, which means the former taste of a working class, appears ironically for the most part. If it ever appears unintentionally, as it did, say, at the wedding of Bec and Lleyton, we are very happy and eager to classify ourselves against it.
There can be no more Warwick and Joanne Capper. There can be no more peplum Melissa George. There can even be no more of Ken Done, unless contextualised in the winking apartments of normcore kids.
All there can be now is good taste.