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In Defense of Ugly

The first week of spring term when students and professors alike blearily stumble back to campus disoriented from the sheer quantity of food and booze they’ve consumed over winter break.  Personally, I’ve always felt that it’s a cruel joke to refer to something that begins in January as “spring” anything, particularly in the midwest, where nothing resembles spring until about May.

However, being back on campus means that I’ve had the pleasure of hearing many an undergrad conversation on a smattering of topics.  A topic recently topping the conversation charts has been the Golden Globe Awards, specifically, what everyone WORE to the Globes.  My interest in award shows is minimal at best, I’ll watch the Oscars for the gowns and the Tonys because duh, but that’s generally all the enthusiasm I can muster.  I only took notice of the Globes discussions because almost everyone had something to say about the awful appearance of Jennifer Lawrence.  This peaked my interest for two reasons: I have a soft spot for J. Law and my litmus test for good fashion is how poorly a garment is received by the masses.  After referencing my googlemachine for images of this “awful” dress I discovered that a lot of the internet had very strong feelings about this dress (they even compared it to the sheet and rope dress from The Little Mermaid).

This may come as no surprise to you, dear reader, but I loved the dress.

The point of this blog post is not to defend J. Law and her dress (I would like that job though) but rather to offer my comments on a larger cultural trend.  One of the words most frequently used in reference to the offending garment is “ugly” as in, “that was such an ugly dress.”  This, then, is the real point of my blog, to provide a brief (and very biased) defense of “ugly.”

Quick etymology lesson: Ugly is a rather unusual word because it’s formed from Norse root words meaning “fear” or “dread.”  I’m also rather partial to the softened 14th century definition of “ugly” as, “very unpleasant to look at.”  More often than not, it seems to me (and people far smarter than I articulate this in greater detail) that fear is deeply connected to uncertainty or the unknown; I believe it was Andrew Smith who said “People fear what they do not understand.”

Stay with me here, so when something is deemed “ugly” it really means that the looker does not understand what it is they are looking at.  “Ugly” then becomes a fascinating space to occupy particularly in contrast to its antonym; beauty.  “Beauty” refers to “physical attractiveness” and also “goodness and courtesy” and, more importantly, “beauty” is easily understood.  “Beauty” is a socially agreed upon status conferred on bodies etc that are both easily legible and palatable.  For me, “ugly” is much more interesting because it is so hard to pin down.  It comes from a place of illegibility that makes us culturally uncomfortable and so we reach for somewhere to put it.  I’m a proponent of what is commonly referred to as “man repellent fashion” or “ugly fashion” which is so called because of its bawdy, ostentatious style that is somehow unattractive to men?  I mean, my fiance digs it so joke’s on you.  It’s difficult to fully summarize this aesthetic, think: loud prints, non-normative lines and shapes, some of it could even be considered “unflattering” but it is certainly never boring or safe.  As a bonus, if you do it right, people will be talking about how “ugly” your outfit was years after they’ve forgotten about the millionth beautiful little black dress.

So come on, be ugly with me.

 

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