“Nothing is great because everything is good,” W. David Marx writes in his new book Status and Culture. Marx’s book is wide-ranging, touching on everything from music to mega-yachts to explain the mechanisms of culture: the way trends work, how taste is formed, why Roman emperors were totally obsessed with squashing purple dye-excreting sea snails. The book represents a massive attempt to decode why we like the things we do.
But that line, from a section about why, exactly, everything in culture is starting to feel like day-old bread, has stuck with me. In fashion particularly, we seem to have entered an era of freewheeling anything-goes style where nothing is out and everything is in.The ‘90s are back and so is Y2K-era fashion. Wide-leg pants are back along with low-rise jeans. Twee fashion is back, as is elegance itself. Sneaker collectors clamor for retro editions, eschewing new styles. Arguably the most exciting thing to happen in menswear this year is the resuscitation of a mall brand that fell out of favor less than a decade ago and is now mounting a comeback on the strength of a pair of wide-fitting chinos from the ‘90s. One strange effect of all of this: if everything can be cool, is anything cool?
I thought Marx might be able to help me make sense of whatever the hell is going on. Speaking over the phone from Tokyo, where he’s based, Marx cited the concept of retromania, from Simon Reynolds’s 2011 book of the same title. “What it means is that people have choices to do new things and to do old things, and for some reason they’re choosing the old one over the new one,” Marx said over the phone from Tokyo where he’s based. “So that means not only that the old one has appeal, because the old one always had appeal. It’s that there’s something lacking about the new one.”
So, what is lacking about our new cultural artifacts? There are plenty of things to blame, perhaps most prominently the internet and its speed fetish. When it comes to fashion, its chief crime is collapsing the trend cycle. In Status and Culture, Marx describes this loop as “a never-ending footrace. Runners on the cultural track all run in the same direction,” towards high-status signifiers. Now, though, the chase feels too short to result in any lasting trends. Think of the oft-quoted cerulean speech from The Devil Wears Prada, in which Meryl Streep lays out the long route a product takes toward the masses. Now, it’s as if a wormhole has opened up in our trend cycles: the most audacious and coveted runway looks are replicated at Zara, Shein, and H&M at record speed. This break in our loop kills innovation, smoothing the rough edges on new ideas to make them palatable for the most mass audience possible. Marx cites the way the artists Kanye and Drake subsume smaller acts in other genres—incorporating a popular young drill artist, for example, before the genre has matured into a star-producing system. When fast-fashion brands pile onto the work of emerging designers, those designers don’t really have a chance to make their own splash.
And when customers inevitably find themselves participating in these trends, doing so no longer holds the impact it once did. “We have been numbed to many traditional status symbols,” Marx writes. “Vacation photos of a radiant beach sunset in a faraway land are no longer impressive when they’re every other image on the feed.” A Supreme box logo T-shirt is no longer lit; an expensive watch does not hit different. When anyone can buy anything,what was once special becomes routine. “In the late ‘90s, trying to get a T-shirt from a Japanese streetwear brand was impossible,” Marx told me. “And now there are probably hundreds of Japanese streetwear brands available to anyone in the US pretty easily…So that’s the dilemma isn’t it? Everyone can have everything. And so therefore, it feels like nothing’s cool.”
Marx cautions against interpreting this lack of cool as a lack of innovation. New things are being invented all the time—they just don’t fit into reliable narrative structures. “We don’t order it in our minds as this year was the X and next year is the Y and we have all stopped wearing X and we’re all in Y,” Marx said. “That kind of linear progression of trends has stopped, and that was the primary way that we understood the whole process. There’s no narrative and that’s what’s confounding us.”
Take TikTok, that incubator of trends, as an example: over the past few years, we’ve cycled through cottagecore, barbiecore, goblincore, and coastal grandmas so quickly that they all ended up shallow and meaningless. Consumers have also grown too smart to fall for any of this. We write off a new trend before it gets a chance to blossom. “Once we have lived through enough fads, we suspect that every new trend will end up a fad,” Marx writes. “We have been cursed to understand the mechanisms of culture too well, making earnest taste nearly impossible.”
The internet isn’t the only party at fault here, though. Marx also cites the rise of poptimism, which treats popular culture with the same weight as less-mainstream endeavors, as one reason nothing feels very cool. In expunging elitism and snobbery from our cultural diets, we’ve lost a culture to stand in contrast to. Rebellious trends and subcultures were once the lifeblood of what we understood as cool. Now, the biggest stars and corporations on earth are often the ones participating in what should otherwise be the nichest of trends. One suggestion? “We have to say mean things about pop culture investing in really conventional boring things if there are innovative alternatives,” Marx says.
The good news is that you’re probably only worried about all of this if you’re old. Gen Z doesn’t classify cool the same way older people, who lived through more definable and digestible seasonable trends, might. Seen from the most optimistic vantage point, the idea that nothing is cool is merely a matter of perspective. Even though trends, innovations, and subcultures aren’t cycling in and out as they once did doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The process has just taken a different shape. The cool is still out there, as long as you know what to look for. “Every youth generation,” Marx said, “feels like their culture is the coolest.”