This isn’t the first time an inter-generational style war has erupted over hair partings and skinny jeans. According to Cassidy George, different generations have always used fashion and hair to make their mark.
When TikTokers @julia3elle and @amelie coleman_ shared what they thought were amusing videos saying they’d rather be homeless or die than wear a pair of skinny jeans, they did more than just criticise a trouser style. They, along with TikToker @missladygleep, who said in a far more benign viral video, “Prove me wrong, but I don’t think there’s a single person who looks better with side part[ed hair] than a middle part,” helped turn a simmering rivalry into an app-wide, inter-generational style war.
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Online, Generation Z (ages 9-24) has criticised many aspects of mainstream Millennial (ages 25-40) style, particularly their love of side-parted hair and skinny jeans. In the process, they’ve sparked a tidal wave of sassy, self-conscious, and downright spiteful Millennial reactions. The trending debate is so heated not because of a lifelong attachment to the particular jeans or hairstyle in question, but because the accusation of being outdated has forced Millennials to confront an uncomfortable truth: there has been a generational power shift.
“Style is a marker that allows us to see the transition from the previous generation of trend drivers to the new generation,” 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”. While the digital forum (TikTok) that is sparking these conversations is new, fashion rivalries are not. Spats like these influenced the evolution of fashion throughout the twentieth century.
“Fashion is a story of youth culture,” says Jessica Glasscock, a professor at Parsons School of Design. Style is a tool that young people of all ages have used to establish and express their distinct point of view. During the Progressive Era (from the 1890s to the 1920s), the so-called “New Women” and “Gibson Girls” represented a new archetype of femininity that welcomed greater independence, much to the chagrin of their Victorian elders who saw their disinterest in confinement to the domestic sphere as a “danger” to civil society. These young women’s styles were the reigning fashion ideal – S-shaped corsets, puffed sleeves, shirtwaist blouses, and towering pompadour hairdos. until the Roaring Twenties arrived.
By popularising a controversial new style that favoured freedom of movement and maximalist glitz, the liberated, androgynous, and jazz-loving flappers supplanted the previous generation’s position on the sartorial pedestal. “Their youth and typically slender silhouettes were a marked contrast to the buxom demi-mondaines and matrons who had dominated the 1910s,” Glasscock explains to BBC Culture. Flappers, who were previously regarded as tacky and promiscuous youth, sparked widespread outrage with their empowering haircut: the bob. It was “a defiant rejection of the idea that a woman’s hair is her ‘crowning glory… and an impressive repudiation of Victorian gender roles,” according to Glasscock.
Flappers provoked widespread outrage with their empowering haircut: the bob
Due to the devastating financial realities of the Great Depression and World War II, the 1930s and 1940s were sobering decades for fashion. After years of material shortages and rationing, Christian Dior’s “New Look” in 1947 shook the industry, combining a sculptural jacket (with rounded shoulders, padded hips, and a narrow waist) with a voluminous circle skirt. The hyperbolically feminine silhouette was a fabric-intensive design that those who grew up in more difficult times saw as wasteful and frivolous.
According to Monica Sklar, a fashion historian and professor at the University of Georgia, this “revolt” in fashion reflected 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 population symbolic goals”. The fertile and floral shape of the New Look mirrored the baby boom, and when softer iterations of it echoed across mainstream fashion, the silhouette became synonymous with suburban, domestic ideals of the 1950s.
Mary Quant, whose quirky and colourful style came to define Swinging London in the 1960s, distanced herself from previous era norms and expectations by separating skirt hemlines from the knee. Quant’s miniskirts, like the flapper dresses, were intended to give young women more freedom of movement for things like working and dancing, but they came to echo the rise of another kind of movement that defined the 1960s: 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 – such as the shift dress, hot pants, Peter-Pan collar, and PVC rain jacket – were popular among teenagers. Many of whom used new fashions to express their dissatisfaction with the cookie-cutter constraints of the 1950s. These fashion-forward youths inspired a historic shift in the workings of the industry at large during the height of Beatlemania.” When the purchasing power of the baby-boom generation renewed the centrality of youth in fashion by sheer force of numbers, [Vogue editor] Diana Vreeland coined the term Youthquake “According to Glasscock. “This was the decade when young designers became as important as young consumers, and they banded together to confront their parents’ fashions.”
By the 1970s, the liberating, so-called “genderbending” appearances of the hippy counterculture of the 1960s had been diluted and co-opted by mainstream youth. The razor-sharp Vidal Sassoon bob gave way to natural, long hair, and the Mod era’s sharp shapes and cuts gave way to maxi dresses, kaftans, and other loose and flowing silhouettes. Jeans, which had terrified an entire generation of parents in the 1950s 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), became controversial again in the 1970s, thanks to their embrace of feather-ruffled bell bottoms. And no discussion of British fashion in the 1970s would be complete without mentioning the punks, whose leather and safety-pin laden aesthetic – and nihilist ideology – were a self-proclaimed rebellion 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 while punk style was invented and adopted by only a small percentage of the 1970s youth, it influenced the broader generation’s sartorial tastes and worldview.