Irony is back in style

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If you see someone in a Justin Bieber T-shirt, how can you be sure they’re a true fan?

It’s getting more difficult.

Fashion experts and academics say irony is back. This trend was, perhaps, most recently put on display by First Lady Melania Trump, who in June wore a $39 Zara ITX, -4.44%  jacket to tour a facility in Texas serving children who had entered the U.S. illegally. The writing on the back of the jacket read: “I really don’t care, do u?” Some critics said it was insensitive, others said it was a message to her husband, while President Trump said it was a coded message to the “fake news media. Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares.” (The first lady’s spokesperson said there was “no hidden message.”)

Consumers appropriate products with ‘undesirable meanings’ for amusement or even to make a political point.

Consumers appropriate products with “undesirable meanings” for amusement or fun and, in an increasingly politically polarized country, even to make a political point. Some prime examples: Liberals wearing “Make America Great Again” hats at the Glastonbury Music Festival in the U.K. to hear the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn give a speech, or a Trump supporter wearing a $20 T-shirt with the words “White, Straight, Conservative, Christian. How else may I offend you today?” A liberal or conservative could arguably wear a this $21 T-shirt with the slogan, “Jesus was a liberal T-shirt,” with quotes from the bible.

Some academics have taken note. A study published in July by the Journal of Consumer Research said more people are wearing styles, logos and brands ironically. Caleb Warren, assistant professor of marketing in at the University of Arizona, conducted four experiments and found products are used to signal one thing to people who belong to a group it represents, while coyly winking to others. The study defined “ironic consumption as “using a product while attempting to signal an identity, trait, or belief that is opposite from the perceived conventional meaning of the product.”

In one experiment, researchers asked college students why they thought a consumer was wearing a Justin Bieber T-shirt, allowing them to choose from options, including whether he or she is a fan, wants to be like other fans, likes his music or just thinks the shirt is attractive or comfortable, or whether it’s being worn ironically. Because most of the college students did not identify as Justin Bieber fans, more than half of the time they inferred it was being worn out of irony, especially if they knew the wearer, suggesting people use fashion to signal hidden meanings to close friends.

“Throughout history, consumers have re-appropriated products to make a statement,” Warren said. “For example, trucker hats were at one time low-status products and originally came into fashion through rural workers. They’ve since been revalued by young urban consumers.” Of course, blue jeans — originally created by California gold miners, according to one theory — are probably the biggest example of blue-collar attire being co-opted by clothing companies and fashion houses. Some pairs sell for as much as $2,000.

Companies see new opportunities to revitalize old brands through memes and social media, and do what Old Spice did so successfully over the last decade with its break-out, “Smell like a man” commercials. “With the rise of memes and Instagram brands, it was inevitable that fashion would adopt the language of irony, too,” said Emilia Petrarca, a fashion news correspondent with The Cut. “It translates differently, though, because fashion is a way to communicate to the world who you are and what you stand for. Now, our signifiers are layered and flipped and bootlegged and layered again.”

Knowingly appropriating these ‘uncool’ fashion items can show a fashion-forward wearer knows their history.

It can be confusing for those not in on the joke. “It’s hard to know what anyone is trying to communicate anymore — are you a tourist or a hipster? A dad or a teenager? Do you like Justin Bieber, or are you making fun of him?” she added. “But I think that’s the point: Being ‘in’ on the joke is the new being up on trends. And labels aren’t cool. We get into trouble though when fashion blindly adopts symbols of a lower class, puts a high price tag on it, and calls it a trend without any thought or consideration. The joke is on you if you’re ironic to the point of ignorance.”

Carhartt, a brand of heavy-duty work and fire-resistant clothes worn primarily by Midwestern farmers and railroad workers, has graced the Instagram FB, +1.01%  pages of singer Rihanna. The seemingly trendy gear consists of beanie caps, work suits and overalls, and flannel shirts, which range from $8 to a hat to $85 coveralls. The company, founded in 1889, found its way into mainstream culture through skaters into mainstream culture, helped by its blue-collar provenance.

That latest iterations include everything from high-waisted “mom jeans” and plastic Crocs shoes, to “hipsters” mocking an anti-drug program by wearing a D.A.R.E. tee-shirt. Now high-fashion brands are selling ugly basics sold at exorbitant prices, Laura Miles Dresser, a New York City stylist said. Balenciaga is selling $900 worn-out “grandpa” sneakers next to sleek high heels, and Gucci now sells a $1,300 fanny pack, a style previously reserved for uncool tourists of the 1980s and a $600 Viacom t-shirt.

Everyone from Kim Kardashian, American TV reality royalty, to Britain’s Princess Anne, actual royalty, have been photographed wearing over sized cycling sunglasses. “It’s bizarre,” cycling journalist Stuart Clapp told the Guardian. “Princess Anne wore some to the royal wedding. It’s like a 90s throwback thing. In cycling terms, you wear cycling sunglasses when you’re on the bike, but no one wants to wear them off it. Not even when you’re in the cafe.”

There is method behind wearing seriously unattractive or somewhat inappropriate items of clothing and accessories. Knowingly appropriating these “uncool” fashion items can have the opposite effect, and shows a fashion-forward wearer knows their history. With enough time, something ugly or sporty or plain geeky can be cool again. By wearing stone-washed jeans, the much-maligned craze from the 1980s, in 2018, fashion experts say there’s an ironic twist to it second time round. They may be eyesores and look out of place, but that’s the point.

‘Are you a tourist or a hipster? A dad or a teenager? Do you like Justin Bieber, or are you making fun of him?’

Emilia Petrarca, a fashion news correspondent with The Cut

“People often look to subcultures of society and pull it into their wardrobe,” Laura Miles Dresser, a New York City stylist said. “A lot of celebrities will wear what is called ‘high-brow, low-brow’ to make it less intense.” This includes fanny packs, Hawaiian shirts, “dad” sneakers, and baggy pants and, yes, cargo shorts. “Wearing something from the past is ironic and shows that you are intelligent in a way because you know it’s out of style but you’re trying to make it modern,” Dresser said. “You’re showing you’re in the know by wearing something ugly or old-fashioned.”

Irony isn’t limited to fashion, it can also be expressed through behavior and other forms of consumption. The latest study cites pop star Bruno Mars celebrating his video release at a Waffle House in 2017 and Cardi B chowing down on a $5 McDonald’s burger while wearing $4 million of jewelry after the MTV Video Music Awards earlier this week. President Trump, who is reportedly worth more than $3.1 billion, is known for his love of McDonald’s fast food MCD, +0.21%

The irony trend can also be an opportunity for brands to market their products to a new generation, Warren said. Pabst Blue Ribbon, a cheap beer that didn’t put on airs, became a “hip” beer in the last decade. Consuming it ironically can also prevent people from criticism for genuinely enjoying something considered uncool. “Consuming something ironically is also a security measure,” Warren said. “No one wants to be mocked for watching, say, Jersey Shore.” It premiered in 2009 during the Great Recession, and provided some light relief for millions of Americans struggling financially.

“But if you so do with a behavior that suggests you’re watching ironically,” he said, “you won’t suffer any stigma related to the product.”

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