The good, the bad and the fugly

A new fashion buzzword denotes monstrous sartorial sins -- like guys with curly hair who wear mullets. Are we in the golden age of bad looks?

Topics:

The good, the bad and the fugly

The latest addition to the lexicon of the stylish isn’t “metrosexual” or “Jewfro” or even “murse” (man purse), all of which are as passi as “bling.” It’s not exactly a new coinage, but one that has gained a foothold thanks to a certain fuzzy Australian boot. It is not pretty. It is ugly. In fact, it is fugly.

“Fugly” (short for “fucking ugly”) may be schoolyard slang, but it’s also the buzzword for countless Web sites and blogs, including the high-profile Go Fug Yourself and the inevitable Am I Fugly or Not? Web site. It’s even responsible for the name of at least one band. In fact, according to Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York, in the last year “fugly” became “common style parlance.”

But what exactly does it mean to be fugly? Is there a formula, a certain pattern to be avoided, like the Tommy Hilfiger label? How does one go from being merely unattractive and unappealing to a state of hideousness so severe that it even sounds revolting? Why do celebrities do it so often? And why do we care when they do?

Like a lot of today’s worst trends — spiraling debt, overproduced pop music, Donald Trump — “fugly” dates to the early to mid-’80s, says Grant Barrett, project editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang at Oxford University Press. Earlier citations probably exist (consider that Norman Mailer used “fug” as a replacement for the banned “fuck” as early as 1948′s “The Naked and the Dead”), but they fall into the Dark Age known to lexicographers as “pre-Internet.”

Likewise, coinage is virtually impossible to determine, but there’s no doubt that the “F” in fugly stands for that most favorite of four-letter words. (“If anyone tells you otherwise, they’re wrong,” promises Barrett.) It’s hard to tell whether “fugly” is being used more lately, although there were a flurry of references in 1998, when “Babe: Pig in the City” came out, thanks to the character Fugly Floom, played by Mickey Rooney (draw your own conclusions).



Doonan, for his part, uses it often, to describe everything from Britney Spears (“Queen of the Fuglies”) to the robot charms on Prada bags. And for Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks, the two reality TV producers behind the Go Fug Yourself site, which hilariously skewers celebrities who have, stylistically speaking, fugged up, it’s become a sort of calling card, their mot juste for nearly any occasion. It’s a verb, an adjective, a noun — but is it worse than ugly?

“Being ugly implies a plainness; there’s no shock to it, and there’s no sense of being taken aback by something’s hideousness,” wrote Cocks, 27, in an e-mail. “Ugly is straightforward. But when you’re fugly, you are fantastically, furiously ugly — the level of atrociousness is more of a shock — ‘Oh my GOD, what was she THINKING? Oh NO!’” (Picture a barefoot Britney in a public bathroom.) “That, to me, makes fugly a notch or five worse than ugly.”

Calling someone out on it, she adds, “is just our way of pointing out to them that they’ve had a hand in their own sartorial idiocy.”

So if ugly is a birthright, then fugly is a choice — one that more and more people seem to be making.

“We’re in the midst of a fugly moment in fashion,” Doonan told me in a phone conversation from Palm Beach, Fla. (which he rated only occasionally fugly). “I attribute it to Uggs.”

In fact, Uggs — the Australian trend that, like Kylie Minogue, won’t die — are so closely associated with fug that they’re almost like its visual shorthand.

Maybe it’s because both seem Muppet-like, says Sarah Federman, 28, an advertising exec in New York and Toronto and a fugliophile. “Fugly sounds like a great cartoon character,” she theorizes. “‘Fugly and His Friends.’ ‘Fugly Goes to Camp.’”

Exactly, says Doonan. “Fugly is sort of an infantile, cartoony adjective, and it applies very nicely to things that themselves are very infantile and cartoony — e.g., Uggs.”

But fugly goes beyond footwear; it’s a whole aesthetic.

“Good fugliness isn’t accidental; it’s very choreographed, like Murakami bags,” explains Doonan. “So much of contemporary fashion is ugly and funky, in a deliberate way: huge platform shoes and fake tans and cellphones hanging around your neck. It’s part cartoon and part porno and comes from a Japanese sensibility.”

Paris Hilton’s X-rated manga look is one example of fuglification, but there are many more.

“Men who have curly hair but have mullets,” says Sveta Srinivasan, 26, a brand strategist from Brooklyn, N.Y. “Anyone who wears crushed velvet. Melissa Rivers.”

When it comes to celebrities, though, fugliness is often in the eye of the beholder. Morgan and Cocks, who parlayed their cattiness into a gig critiquing Oscar outfits for MSNBC, often focus their gaze on stars who have been anointed fashionistas by the Vogue crowd. (In fact, Cocks once fugged Anna Wintour herself.)

“There are these celebrities who are being promoted to the public as being worthy of admiration and imitation when really they look totally insane,” says Morgan. “Maggie Gyllenhaal dresses like a lunatic half the time.” Chloë Sevigny may be beautiful, but according to Morgan, she’s no icon: “All she’s doing is wearing a large men’s Hanes Beefy Tee.” Kirsten Dunst is a favorite target, too, for her penchant for wearing socks with sandals.

But — and here’s where I get nervous — I’ve worn socks with sandals. Often. As has probably half of New York’s glam downtown crowd. And the New Yorkers I talked to didn’t find anything offensive in Sevigny or Gyllenhaal’s offbeat style, so contrary to the L.A. uniform of sexy jeans, flirty top and flashy sandals. Is there maybe an East Coast-West Coast style divide at work here? (Go Fug Yourself is L.A.-based.) Are the Fug Girls, as they’re known, prejudiced against the fashion forward?

“Whenever it’s slightly idiosyncratic, I think they pick on them,” says Emily Kofsky, 28, a Manhattan marketing manager and reader of Go Fug. “That’s what the girls dress like on the Lower East Side.”

“We do sometimes get e-mails from people who say we don’t appreciate people who take fashion risks,” admits Morgan, who considers Gwyneth Paltrow a fashion role model (despite her bad posture). “I understand the point they’re making and I actually do appreciate more avant-garde stuff, but I think there’s a place for it.” (Hint: It’s not the red carpet.)

It’s true that far-out fashion can seem ugly at first, says Doonan (though, as the author of “Wacky Chicks: Life Lessons From Fearlessly Inappropriate and Fabulously Eccentric Women,” he appreciates it). And though I shudder to think what the Fug Girls would make of New York party fixture Sylvia Miles, they do claim to be geography-blind bashers.

“People come to L.A. and figure it’s a perfect winter climate for miniskirts and Ugg boots; hence, fugly trends are born,” offers Cocks. “But every city has its curiosities and its massive mistakes. If I lived in a so-called fashion capital, like New York, I still wouldn’t appreciate Chloë Sevigny’s wardrobe as art.”

Of course, the Fug Girls aren’t alone in judging the far-out as far off; magazines like Us Weekly and Star have created a whole cottage industry around rating celebrity fug, both in candid “just taking out the trash in my velour sweat suit/hot pants” paparazzi shots, and sanctioned publicity photos, which suffer commentary from a panel of people who are probably sitting at home in their underwear.

Why is it so interesting — and off-putting — to see stars have a stylistic lapse?

“A fugly man that you see walking down the street might only offend people here and there — he might only offend me once in my life,” Srinivasan says. “But celebrities are everywhere; they could do it so much more often. For example: Carrot Top.”

“I think celebrities are worse because they have a responsibility to be appealing,” she adds.

Morgan thinks the lifestyles of the rich and famous should be a sort of fug repellent.

“If you have everything these people have you should be able to go out of your house without looking like a lunatic,” she says. “Either they don’t care, or they kind of have no clue.”

But true cluelessness should draw mercy, not ire; carelessness, on the other hand, telegraphs a kind of hateful arrogance, a suggestion that the offender is beyond reproach, sartorial or otherwise. (“Vanity is the quicksand of reason,” said George Sand.)

“I think celebrities are so comfortable looking good that they don’t realize that they can look bad,” concludes Federman, the advertising exec.

There is a certain schadenfreude in seeing Jennifer Garner look like a linebacker in a full-size doily.

Judy McGuire, a dating columnist for the New York Press and the Seattle Weekly, has a so-bad-it’s-good stance on celebrity fug-pas: “I love looking at celebrity fugliness because, sure, that person may be hotter, richer, skinnier and more famous than I’ll ever be, but at least I’ll never be caught dead in shearling hot pants,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Besides, isn’t presenting stars in all their fuglory a sort of backhanded compliment, an elevation of the very behavior that it denigrates? After all, fuggery apparently sells magazines — “The Olsens’ Worst Outfits!” frothed a recent cover of Us Weekly (subtitle: “Billionaire$ or Bum$?”) — and listing the fugliest of their time has kept the otherwise-unoccupied Mr. Blackwell around for 45 years.

“It’s never the swans that get copied,” Doonan asserts. “It’s the fugly girls.” (Mary-Kate, style icon?)

“‘Fugly’ is like an infantile version of the French ‘jolie laide,’” he adds (the phrase literally translates to “pretty ugly”). “It’s a mistake to use it in a derogative way. Good taste and bad taste are irrelevant when it comes to confronting fugly. It’s not a pejorative, it’s a fact.”

For all her fug-bashing, Morgan admits to some ambivalence about seeing her favorite subjects, like Sevigny, clean up well. “When she shows up looking great, I feel like, ‘Oh, she looks great, and I’m really happy for her,’” she says. “But then I’m kind of disappointed that she’s not wearing a crazy outfit.”

“There’s something very right about a person who embraces their fugliness,” agrees McGuire. “Where’s the fun in being ordinary?”

Even harsh judges like Srinivasan aren’t immune to fug love. “Just because you deem someone fugly, doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate something about them,” she says.

As long as they’re not wearing Uggs.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>