Cool Girls: A Conversation with Celine of Double Plus Lovely
Celine Nguyen, writer of Double Plus Lovely, is brilliant. She writes about fashion in a way I really appreciate - intelligently, and in a way that respects the depth and the artistry behind it. I don't think I've ever heard Celine say something that wasn't perfectly articulate, kind, well thought-out, and generally impressive. She's particularly interested in the graphic design and branding work of fashion, she ambitiously tried to watch EVERY SINGLE fashion show for FW '15, and she has pinboards for sneakers, not sneakers, and mostly girls in sneakers. In other words, she's cool as hell.
And so when it comes to the question of cool, there's no one's brain I'd rather pick that Celine's. It's a topic that's been coming up a lot lately in our circles - what does it actually mean to be cool?
SC: You and I are both engaged with fashion on a lot of different platforms - websites, blogs, forums, and the industry itself - each with its own very diverse culture and set of beauty standards. Yet despite that diversity, I can’t think of a single platform where one of the ultimate desires isn’t to be “cool” or to express “coolness.” I think if you take a step back and try to look at it objectively, it becomes really hard create a consensus on what that actually means. What is cool? Who is cool? Why do so many of us say that our style goal is “just look cool”? Can we list attributes we always associate with cool - like not trying hard? Why is it that just asking this question feels really, really uncool?
Celine: I mean, I think one reason people rely on just “looking cool” is because they don’t have the vocabulary to fully articulate what “cool” is to them. Maybe later on people will specify—their idea of cool is “deliberate androgyny and lots of sheerness”, or “Americana and denim informed by an impending dystopia”. But most people just start off with “what do I like?” and “what seems different, but not too different?”
That said, I guess there is also a separate idea of coolness, and it probably involves a bit of:
- low-key subversiveness
- informed largely by urban culture
- consistent across someone’s actions and interests
- detached and relaxed
- irreverent, not idealistic
SC: I just finished reading Barthes' "The Language of Fashion" and one of the concepts that really stood out to me was that fashion is a measure of a degree of participation in the social order. Basically, that the degree to which one’s costume aligns with the accepted costume of the day implies the degree to which the wearer is involved, in line, participating with society. And to me that kind of suggested that maybe “cool” is about a delicate balance of social participation - you want whatever you’re wearing/being/doing to be a recognizable and familiar signifier, so that it expresses something obvious and definite to the people who are looking at it, but you also want it to be far enough outside of the norm to be distinctive. In other words, I think it’s just rebellious enough.
CN: I love the concept of the Overton window when discussing what is socially acceptable and socially valuable. It’s primarily used in discussing politics—the idea is that if you have extremist viewpoints voiced in public, then even if those viewpoints are distasteful to the majority, their existence nudges the public to find ideas that lean to that extreme as more palatable. So—right now, you see tons of flares and culottes on the runway. The cuts are extreme. The silhouettes are extreme, especially because womenswear has comfortably settled into a state where skinny jeans are the only jeans (okay, and “boyfriend” jeans). A lot of the flares and culottes we see on the runway aren’t going to show up on the high street any time soon, and they won’t be bought off the high street. But we’ll probably see more subdued flares and culottes, and pieces inspired by those things, and the fact that exaggerated flares and culottes exist are kind of priming fashion culture to accept more wide and voluminous pants.
So anyways, I think there’s this division between what is avant-garde, and what is cool—cool is the stuff that’s informed by the avant-garde, by the bleeding edge, by that which is new and unexpected and subversive and revolutionary. But like you said, it’s just rebellious enough to be different, not too rebellious that it becomes unpalatable. The avant-garde stuff is what’s uncompromising.
SC: Do you really think that avant-garde will always inform cool, though? I’m not totally disagreeing with you, because in many ways it certainly does, but to me that aligns on some level with the false presumption that the “trickle-down from couture” model of the fashion industry is still dominant. I think that died in the 1970’s, with the rise of mainstream imitation of American subcultural style.
I would concede that even if “trickle-up from the street” is now dominant, it’s often just a source of inspiration and influence for the designers who will succeed in selling them. In that way, it's fair to say that Fashion with a Capital F does still come from a runway. But in a lot of ways but the sociological act of dress itself seems more diverse than that.
I think it raises two questions for me: 1) In what ways is “cool” equated with “newness” - like this idea that flares are “fresh” right now, but may be “saturated” in a few months, making them uncool; 2) To what extent, if at all, do you see “coolness” coming from sources beyond the runway?
CN: Oh, that’s actually a fair point. I guess that avant-garde as a term doesn’t really include how fashion can arise from particular subcultures—and those subcultures then influence fashion at large. So let’s say, maybe, the avant-garde (the transgressive and exploratory side of the fashion establishment) and the subcultural (the transgressive and exploratory side of society at large).
To the first question—I think that coolness can simultaneously be things that are new-to-the-world and things that are new-to-us-now—trends that are revivals of something 20 years ago or more can still be cool if they feel refreshing and different than what most people today have been sampling for years. I think there are things that are cool that aren’t particularly new—like women toying with menswear has arguably been a Cool Thing ever since Le Smoking in 1966.
I think it’s necessary that what’s cool has to constantly shift, because coolness is something that exists just outside of the edge of what is normal. Something that is cool needs to feel accessible to most people as something excitingly different, but it becomes less cool when others begin to accept it and incorporate it into their lives as a whole. If you see a certain style of jacket that’s really cool—well, if you start seeing ten girls a day wearing it, it still has the same aesthetic qualities that drew you to it, but the social qualities are now different. And coolness is socially defined. Wearing something that is more common doesn’t have that same feeling of low-key subversiveness, of doing something that’s just slightly divergent.
To the second question—I think what is cool can come from the fashion establishment and the streets. People might veer more towards one or the other—if you see coolness as being very culturally informed and in-the-loop, then maybe what is on the runway is, to you, the most interesting and influential.
And if you see coolness as being more about the counterculture, and about being independent, you might be most keenly interested in emergent trends in your community and neighborhood and the clientele at your favorite neighborhood bakery or bar.
I think that society and the fashion establishment are constantly referencing and borrowing from and interacting with each other, so it’s really hard to tease apart. I think that the increasing popularity of streetwear is a very specific and concrete way in which a subculture is being enshrined right now in the fashion establishment as a new direction, a new way of seeing things, a new way of appreciating the world. I think it’s very interesting what people cite as muses—whether that’s a particular well-connected woman in society or the arts, or “the woman” of the brand with a specific ideology towards dressing and life, or the fans who interact with a brand with a particular kind of enthusiasm and critical eye. I think it’s a good way of seeing what the brand sees as cool, and where the source of coolness is.
SC: There’s also this quote I really like, “Cool is just conservative fear dressed in black,” which suggests that “cool” can be limiting in some ways.
CN: Cool is absolutely limiting—coolness is inherently culturally mediated, and determined by other people. I think even when people talk about coolness as not caring about what other people think—that’s an outside perception of how chilled-out and independent someone is. It’s funny, but the style that’s frequently pitched to us as It Girl Style and Cool Girl Style doesn’t seem to change. It’s actually often fairly accessible, in that it doesn’t require a lot of effort and knowledge and background to “get” and to appreciate. The outfits are decomposable into their constituent elements. The styling seems straightforward. It’s not usually the kind of thing where you see a girl on the street and go “what? what?!” and you’re not thinking “is that a jumpsuit? or a skirt? or a dress? a dress layered over a skirt?!”
In cynical moments, I think that the real requirement for being an It Girl or Cool Girl according to most fashion commentary is just to be thin, attractive, and dressed in a safe way. Leather jacket, draped white tee, skinny jeans, ankle boots. Done. Go find a photographer to date. And the right ethnicity. I sometimes feel like we mandate certain types of people dress in certain ways, like skinny girls can wear Rick but curvy girls can’t, curvy girls have to be more informed by decades past; that black girls can have natural hair and dress in an “eclectic” way, but not a classically prep way. Is that just me? I’m just very suspicious, all the time, of the ways in which fashion engages with diversity.
I also think that our culturally-identified Cool Girls aren’t just people who are well-dressed, but people who are successful in ways we want to be successful. There’s a very fuzzy boundary between dressing-like-her and being-like-her. Amal Alamuddin, you know, is the epitome of cultured, and she’s an incredibly successful lawyer, and now she’s married to someone who’s super accomplished and famous too. There are a lot of people who want that (being multilingual, being half of a power couple), and also want to wear a white jumpsuit to their wedding festivities. I think personal style has so many ties to personal self-expression, a search for identity, an assertion of self. I think it makes sense that when we aspirationally dress, we are also aspirationally expressing who we want to be.
SC: Right, I think “coolness” definitely transcends clothing, but ultimately comes down to a very narrow set of behavioral and social parameters. Just outside the norm, but ultimately within a range of desired characteristics. Even rebellion is so much about acting on society’s unspoken, yet acceptable, desires. Like, Rebel Without A Cause, who doesn’t want to get on a motorcycle and ride away? But you only get to rebel to a very narrow degree. Buy a motorcycle, don’t steal a car. And what’s acceptable is so often influenced by the milieu of social forces around us - political, economic. In the past 15 years, we’ve seen so much of this (very exhausting) social trope of cynicism and irony. It’s nomatively "cool," but it’s very safe to hate everything. I think we’re starting to cycle out of that - because coolness is about newness, right? I'm really glad that it’s becoming more and more acceptable to really love things.
I love that you said this—that coolness has been, for so long, connected to cynicism, of not caring, of intentionally detaching yourself—because why can’t coolness involve very deliberately and consciously appreciating things? Of being enthusiastic?
I think it’s interesting to see the contrasts between being a cool girl and a fangirl. In many ways, we depict them as opposites. The cool girl isn’t a brand loyalist! She mixes her designer stuff with H&M! She doesn’t care! The fangirl is obsessed with this one brand! She may be a bit too much of a brandwhore! She has to put effort into her look!
SC: So speaking of aspirational dressing, I feel like at any given time the American blogosphere is obsessed with French girls, or Scandinavian girls, or whoever else - (and it’s worth noting that girls in other countries are sometimes equally obsessed with American girls). What do you think is behind that? If I had to search for a pattern, these are generally countries that on some small level do reflect the dominant aesthetic of the time, which then becomes a trope - like Swedish girls, in my experience, do wear a ton of monochrome, and that’s trendy now. Suddenly “All Swedish Girls Wear Monochrome.” The second thing I think is at play is that we ascribe to these groups whatever current cultural ideals we’re into at that time. Thoughts?
CN: I think it’s quite common for fashion culture to always seek a person or demographic to idealize—it’s perhaps a bit complimentary, perhaps a bit othering. It’s really interesting how we’ve idealized—New York girls, or French girls, or Swedish girls, or Japanese girls—and specific styles each one is supposed to have. I think there’s something dangerous in attaching our idea of French fashion and French street style specifically to French girls, especially because I’m sure there is some French girl out there who honest-to-god does dress like a schlub and naturally does no-makeup makeup…with no makeup. She is not gamine. She does not buy investment pieces. She is not classic. And that’s okay.
I think that, in America specifically, there’s this prevailing insecurity that Europe is always a bit more ahead of the curve culturally, that they know what they’re doing, that we must feebly and anxiously attempt to keep up. I think that in general there’s this aspect of voyeurism—interest in what the rich do, what the celebrities do, what the women of another country do. I’m sure all the American women that appear in French media are the most stylish and fashion-forward ones, and same for the French women appearing in American media.
Intriguingly, the cultural concept of a French girl doesn’t really include, say, the French girl whose family is from Algeria, who is Muslim, who is affected by the ongoing French debate over the hijab. I don’t know if it’s too much a stretch to say that our obsession with only a certain kind of French girl is whitewashing the culture and demographics of France today. In Sweden, there are immigrants from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria…don’t they also participate in the everyday street style environment of Sweden?
I think the idea of a Japanese It Girl isn’t super dominant in womenswear culture, but it’s curiously dominant in menswear culture—dudes who get really excited seeing an Asian girl dressed in Yohji, or dressed in Kapital. I think there’s a very strong connection with this kind of awkward and uncomfortable Asian-girl-fetishization.
SC: YES, thank you. I actually wrote a post about this before - you’re not stretching when you refer to the act as whitewashing. It’s like walking into a Ralph Lauren store on the Upper East Side and declaring you’ve discovered American Style, and then maybe taking a trip to Madewell in Williamsburg and saying you know how All Real Brooklynites dress. We’re ascribing this ideal of the European woman as a more sophisticated version of ourselves. And all the while, they’re seeing American girls as these liberated, “too cool to care” girls. You want to say that it’s harmless and all in good fun. But you wonder. It’s a shame, especially in France and elsewhere, where “Who is French?/Who is European?” is such a major political question right now.
I could really get on my soapbox about this, so let’s get back to cool girls. This is a simple question, but I know you’ll have a great answer, so who’s your ideal cool girl?
CN: This is a super interesting question. I jumped immediately to thinking about the girls I know who are aware of fashion’s cultural, social, and economic influence—people who can talk about how fashion interacts with class, with race, with beauty standards, with consumerism. I think it’s totally fine to frame fashion in the “what do I like” way, where it’s just about beautiful things and interesting things. It’s nice to just lust after beautiful clothes and not think about the fact that the designer keeps on hiring only Caucasian models. But I think it’s critical to know that those other dimensions and other considerations are there. I’d go so far as to say that, to be deeply interested in fashion and style, a woman has to engage with feminist issues—like body politics and gender normativity, to name just two. Fashion is so tied to what society has constructed as the acceptable and ideal roles of women.
I think one aspect of the “cool girl” that I feel very strongly about is that she has to care deeply about things, and be an informed thinker, not just an informed shopper. I feel like “cool” is often defined as being coolly detached, being above it all, being super chill and laidback and a bit divorced from reality, honestly—like the cool girl is gonna say, “oh yeah, this perfectly staged home? it’s whatever, my perfect no-makeup makeup, you know, it’s all normal” instead of recognizing that she can act like she put no effort into her life and her looks, but that plays into a culture right now of placing pressure on women to have effortlessly #flawless #wokeuplikethis lives.
I think it is very cool to care.
To narrow down a definition of a cool girl in a way that’s more specifically related to fashion and style…I think it’s amazing when people are very comfortable going against trends and societal norms (like norms of what a woman is supposed to dress like, how a woman is supposed to assert her femininity and flatter her body)—and also when people go with trends, because they sincerely like them, even if other people are saying the trend is bad or over. I think being trend-independent is often framed as not participating in trends; I really think it should be about the confidence to engage and not engage with any trend that pops up, without too much fear of what other people will think.
I also think a cool girl might be a brand loyalist—she might have a brand that she loves, that she admires, that she’s followed for a while or got so excited about she went and looked at runway collections from three years ago—but isn’t too much of a brand snob. I think being able to appreciate and value lots of different kinds of brands, and—on a larger scale—different kinds of styles and aesthetics, too—that’s very valuable. So being open-minded. Recognizing that something you dislike for you has merit, maybe in the abstract, maybe in terms of merit to others.
I want to thank Celine for sharing her wisdom with us. It was an absolute pleasure! Again, you can find more of Celine at Double Plus Lovely.