Is it Ever Acceptable to Say “Tacky?”

An objective judgement or shocking prejudice? Clothing has always been imbued with taste-based judgements of the kind we make when trying on an outfit in a shop or even straight out of our own wardrobe.

Anyone for whom clothing is a passion naturally sift through vast quantites of potential purchases, not to mention endless conversations with fellow fanatics about what they do and don’t like. Gentle critiques of what other people wear are common enough. But what about when someone uses a common term saturated with connotations of money and status like ‘tacky’ or ‘naff’? Dress afterall has been historically linked with these aspirational qualities with cheap-looking garments consistently frowned upon.

Agricultural Origin

Oxford Dictionaries gives the definition of “Showing poor taste and quality” and says tacky is from the early 19th century and “of unknown origin. Early use was as a noun denoting a horse of little value, later applied to a poor white in some Southern states of the US, hence ‘shabby, cheap, in bad taste’ (mid 19th century).”

In fact sources claim the earliest reference was in Communications Concerning the Agriculture and Commerce of America, by William Tathan in 1800. “At some places, you are thus asked, in local phrase, to truck or trade for a horse, a cow, or a little tackie, a term which signifies a poney, or little horse, of low price,” it says.

New Meanings

Just like fashion, language itself is semiotic – representing different meanings to different people. Recently costume vlogger Angela Clayton explained some of the misconceptions she had about vintage fashion – one being that modern-made ‘vintage-inspired’ clothing is “tacky”. She quickly felt a need to post a lengthy explanation clarifying what she meant by the term.

“I really do respect and admire all sorts of styles. Whether it’s gothic lolita or some sort of boho chic,” she said. “I think people who have defined styles that they clearly enjoy and put effort into are awesome regardless of the style itself. My thoughts on the majority of modern vintage inspired pieces has everything to do with my personal style and what I want to invest money in and wear. I didn’t mean it to be accusatory to anyone who wears those styles. In fact I follow a lot of people who embrace the rockabilly 1950s style and think it is great. It’s just not great for me. I know I used the word tacky – I don’t think I use that word in as negative of a way as some people – I use that word to describe my decorating sense for example. I use it more as ‘overwhelmingly over the top’ which isn’t how I like to dress. But that doesn’t mean it is bad! The last thing I would want to do is make anyone feel bad about their style.”

Any Effort Should be Encouraged

Costumers of all kinds spend years honing their craft, researching styles and investing in fabrics. It is no wonder some are concerned about lower quality imitations, however honest the effort was meant to be. In reenactment historical accuracy is a key objective while the market is full of very poor products. As for Goth and Steampunk there is a huge spectrum of quality in the clothing that is available. But does anyone have the right to judge another based on what they wear – consciously or unconsciously?

Costumer Alyson Brewer found Clayton’s explanation unsatisfactory. “I think the word tacky has connotations of being sub-standard, that ‘I am better than you because I’m doing it properly’. It is an attitude that has put me off from attending vintage events, as, regardless what Angela Clayton claims, it’s not easy to find good quality vintage clothing in larger sizes. Besides, the average body size has changed as have fabrics and technologies, so what is wrong in looking at vintage or historic styles and construction techniques and then converting them to suit modern day shapes and lifestyles? Anything which encourages people to have pride in their appearance and try to be more stylish or develop a sense of identity should be encouraged not mocked as being not quite good enough. It beats looking shapeless and drab in leggings, tracksuits and the like!”

Is identifying tackiness a judgement necessary to protect the market for quality handmade items? Or should these terms that are so steeped in snobbery be censored from our lips so that the entry-level costume curious can rise to full-fledged costume fanatic unhindered?