The spat about hair partings and skinny jeans isn’t the first time there’s been an inter-gen style war. Different generations have always used fashion and hair to make their mark, says Cassidy George.
When TikTokers @julia3elle and @amelie_coleman_ shared what they thought to be humorous videos saying they’d rather be homeless or die than wear a pair of skinny jeans, they did far more than attack a trouser style they find unflattering. They, alongside TikToker @missladygleep, who, in a far more innocuous viral video, said “Prove me wrong, but I don’t think there’s a single person that looks better with side part[ed hair] than a middle part,” helped transform a simmering rivalry into an app-wide, inter-generational style war.
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Online, Generation Z (ages 9-24) has been criticising numerous aspects of mainstream Millennial (ages 25-40) style, namely their affections for side-parted hair and skinny jeans. In the process they have unleashed a tidal wave of sassy, self-conscious and downright spiteful reactions from Millennials. The trending dispute is so impassioned, not due to a lifelong allegiance to the particular jeans or hairstyle in question, but because the accusation of being outdated has forced Millennials to face an uncomfortable truth: there’s been a transfer of generational power.
With her baggy outfits and centre-parted hair, Billie Eilish is the embodiment of Gen-Z style (Credit: Getty Images)
“Style is a marker that allows us to see the handoff between the former generation of trend drivers and the new one,” says Jason Dorsey of the Center for Generational Kinetics. “It’s one of the key areas that lets us know when one generation ends, and a new one begins”. And while the digital forum (TikTok) that’s sparking these conversations is indeed new, style rivalries are anything but. Spats like these have shaped the evolution of dress throughout the 20th Century.
In the words of Jessica Glasscock, a professor at the Parsons School of Design: “Fashion is a story of youth culture”. Style is a tool that young people of every generation have harnessed to establish and express their unique point of view. In the US during the Progressive Era (a period of widespread social activism and reform from the 1890s to 1920s), the so-called “New Women” and “Gibson Girls'” represented a new archetype of femininity that welcomed greater independence, much to the dismay of their Victorian elders who deemed their disinterest in confinement to the domestic sphere a “danger” to civil society. These young womens’ style, best known for their S-shaped corsets, puffed sleeves, shirtwaist blouses and towering pompadour hairdos, were the reigning fashion ideal – until the Roaring ’20s rolled around.
Taylor Swift is among the many Millennials who favour skinny jeans – much reviled by Gen Z (Credit: Getty Images)
The liberated, androgyny-embracing and jazz-adoring flappers supplanted the previous generation’s position on the sartorial pedestal – by popularising a controversial new style that favoured freedom of movement and maximalist glitz. “Their youth and typically slender silhouettes were a pronounced contrast to the buxom demi-mondaines and matrons who had dominated the 1910s,” Glasscock tells BBC Culture. Flappers, who were deemed to be tacky and promiscuous youth by previous generations, provoked widespread outrage with their empowering haircut: the bob. It was, says Glasscock, “a defiant rejection of the idea that a woman’s hair is her ‘crowning glory’… and an impressive repudiation of Victorian gender roles”.
The 30s and 40s were sobering decades for fashion due to the devastating financial realities of the Great Depression and World War Two. After years of material shortages and rationing, the industry was rattled when Christian Dior introduced his “New Look” in 1947, which paired a sculptural jacket (modelled with rounded shoulders, padded hips and a narrow waist) with a voluminous circle skirt. The hyperbolically feminine silhouette was a fabric-intensive design that was deemed wasteful and frivolous by those who came of age in more challenging times.
The flapper generation of the 1920s made their mark with a radically new, androgynous silhouette and bob haircut (Credit: Getty Images)
Fashion historian and professor at the University of Georgia, Monica Sklar, says this “revolt” in fashion echoed a dramatic change in circumstance: “It was as much about Christian Dior creating something innovative, as it was a garment representing supply-chain availability and the symbolic goals of the population”. The New Look’s fertile and floral shape mirrored the baby boom, and when softer iterations of it echoed across mainstream fashion the silhouette became synonymous with the suburban, domestic ideals of the 50s.
The designer Mary Quant, whose quirky and colourful style came to define Swinging London in the 60s, distanced herself from the norms and expectations of the previous era by distancing skirt hemlines from the knee. A truly shocking shift in youth fashion, Quant’s miniskirts were intended (like the flapper dresses) to allow young women more freedom of movement for things like working and dancing, but came to echo the rise of another kind of movement that defined the 60s: Women’s Liberation.
Inspired by the styles of the beatnik and Mod subcultures, Quant’s miniskirts, along with her other iconic inventions of the decade – like the shift dress, hot pants, Peter-Pan collar, and PVC rain jacket – were all the rage with the teenage masses, many of whom used new fashions to mark disinterest in conforming to the cookie-cutter constraints of the 50s. In the heyday of Beatlemania, these fashion-forward youths inspired a historic shift in the workings of the industry at large. “[Vogue editor] Diana Vreeland coined the word Youthquake when the buying power of the baby-boom generation renewed the centrality of youth in fashion by sheer force of numbers,” Glasscock says. “This was the decade when young designers became as central as young consumers, and allied [with each other] to confrontationally reject the fashions of their parents.”
The Swinging ’60s generation made a strong, youthful statement with the mini dress (Credit: Getty Images)
By the 1970s, the freeing, so-called “genderbending” looks sported by folks in the hippy counterculture of the 60s were diluted and co-opted by mainstream youth. The razor-sharp Vidal Sassoon bob was swapped for natural, long hair, and the sharp shapes and cuts of the Mod era were replaced by maxi dresses, kaftans and other loose and flowing silhouettes. Young people in the 1970s succeeded in making jeans – which had panicked an entire generation of parents in the 50s, due to their associations with teenage rebels and the rocker subculture (an image propagated by films like Rebel Without A Cause and The Wild One) – controversial again, thanks to their embrace of feather-ruffling bell bottoms.
And discussion of British style in the 70s would not be complete without the mention of the punks, whose leather and safety-pin laden aesthetic – and nihilist ideology – were a self-proclaimed revolt against the hippy ethos that had permeated popular culture. This subcultural rivalry resulted in one of the most radical aesthetic inversions in fashion history, and though punk style was innovated and adopted by a miniscule fraction of 70s youth, it influenced the broader generation’s sartorial tastes and worldview.
Flares and long hair were the 1970s reaction against the short, sharp looks that had come before (Credit: Getty Images)
Eventually the recession that shaped the 70s dissipated, making way for the outrageous, excessive and flashy 80s. Young people said goodbye to earth tones and the relaxed silhouettes of the previous generation, gravitating instead toward neon colours, acid-wash denim and (with the help of the infamous shoulder pad) boxy silhouettes. The effortless hair of the 70s also fell out of favour; in the 80s, the bigger and more outrageous the hair or haircut, the better (case in point: the perm and the mullet). Money and materialism, which were understandably demonised in an era defined by war and economic hardship, were suddenly en vogue.
Class-conscious youth flaunted their status by adopting the new preppy look, spearheaded by lifestyle designers like Perry Ellis and Ralph Lauren. And the appearance-obsessed 80s (quite a reaction from the laid-back and low-maintenance 70s) fuelled a fitness craze which gave rise to some of the most memorable youth styles of the decade: high-cut leotards, biking shorts, leg warmers and scrunchies. The rise of “athleisure”, which was given an extra aura of cool thanks to its role in the growing hip-hop community, spawned a generation of sweatshirt-loving teens, who gladly ditched Birkenstocks and paisley for trainers and tracksuits.
Princess Diana frequently sported typically 80s hair – big, bold and a complete change from the previous long, natural, hippy looks (Credit: Getty Images)
In the 90s, the Gen-X grunge movement extinguished the glamour and greed of the 80s; once a subculture, their “anti-fashion” look of flannel shirts, Doc Martens, military jackets and oversized sweaters gained more mainstream approval among the youth of the era. Meanwhile, supermodels Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell conjured an army of teen copycats, who were eager to mimic their love for minimalist, slinky slip dresses.
Even beauty regimens were dressed down; the bright blue eyeshadows of the 80s gave way to a more natural look. Sure enough, the so-called “heroin chic” look, inspired by both the sovereignty of the supermodel and the influence of grunge-music heroes like Kurt Cobain, and sported by edgier youngsters, was met with a moral panic from the older generation, who claimed the look romanticised drugs.
Generation X favoured the waif-like, grunge look – Kate Moss, pictured with Naomi Campbell, was the poster girl (Credit: Getty Images)
Gen-Z and Millennials’ spat over style is an inevitable aspect of fashion’s evolution – as evidenced by previous generations. Gen Z researcher and author Corey Seemiller is eager to clarify, however, that the most significant difference in style between them isn’t about any particular garment or look, but rather the ethics of consumption. “Gen Z like to buy used clothing, both for their ability to personalise it, and as a way to demonstrate their environmental commitment in keeping items out of landfills,” says Seemiller.
And though it’s never pleasant to be labelled passe, there are plenty of positive side effects that may come with the changing of the fashion guard. “I think it’s healthy to have a generational separation and to coalesce around a new identity,” Dorsey says. “It gives us the best preview of the future.” TikToker @missladygleep, who was born in 1997 (the year of the generational cut off) says she now happily alternates between parting her hair down the middle and side. When asked how she feels about the on-going style war, she says without hesitation: “Change is the best part of life”.
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