The year explained in clothes.
There was so much news in 2019. Too much, probably! Now, at the end of the year, all that remains is a series of blurry mental images — a man at a congressional hearing there, a clip from another superhero movie there. The same stuff as last year, for the most part.
In between all these blurry images are a few that have stood out, and many of them have been items of clothing. So much of 2019 happened via T-shirt, or via coat, or via accessory that somehow made a comeback despite being the butt of every lazy joke about bad ‘80s fashion.
Here are 13 of those pieces of clothing — from the MAGA hat worn by a smirking teen to the cowboy aesthetic that would change country music maybe forever — that defined the last year of the 2010s.
1) The T-shirts rendered irrelevant
In 2019, there was merch for everything, even complex federal proceedings. This spring, the internet was flooded with merch celebrating the ongoing Mueller investigation. The problem, though, was that no one really knew anything about what was going on.
For the last few years, former special counsel Robert Mueller was a symbol of hope for #resistors who wanted President Donald Trump out of office, his name a single-word rallying cry perfectly poised to end up on mugs and cute pins. T-shirts blaring “It’s Mueller Time” and prayer candles featuring Mueller’s face were everywhere on Etsy this spring. Once it was published in April, the 448-page document showed plenty of shady conduct by Trump, his campaign, and his cabinet, but the Mueller report wasn’t the silver bullet that Trump’s adversaries hoped for. Thousands of pieces of merch on the internet were rendered essentially worthless, bringing the Mueller industrial complex to a halt. Mueller T-shirt wearers, though, wouldn’t have to wait long for a new hope to hold onto: the more damning allegations that would lead to an impeachment inquiry would come just a few months later.
2) The coat that solidified a star
The standout fashion moment in one of this fall’s biggest and best films comes right at the beginning of Hustlers, but the idea it represents lingers throughout the entire movie. Jennifer Lopez gives arguably her most memorable performance ever as the veteran dancer at a mid-2000s New York City strip club who takes Constance Wu’s Destiny under her wing. One of the first times we see her, she’s perched on the rooftop, smoking a cigarette and wearing the world’s most triumphant fur coat.
When she invites Destiny to come sit with her and huddle under that coat, it sets off the chain of events that will propel them into the life of crime that drives the film’s plot. But for now, it’s the start of a genuine, albeit complicated friendship. “For me, [the coat] represents the invitation to come in and take shelter in a friendship,” Hustlers’s costume designer Mitchell Travers told Vox. “It’s a visual symbol of success and wealth and power, but that’s the world that she’s reflecting or presenting to the men in the club.”
3) The coat that was totally overblown
Last winter a single coat was everywhere. Headlines claimed that a certain parka — hooded, army green, with hints of streetwear influence — was “taking the internet by storm,” and that “everyone you know” is buying it. Before long, an $89 coat from a brand no one had ever heard of was known simply as “the Amazon coat.”
Whether or not people were actually buying it is somewhat besides the point. The more interesting story is how a single, local news item in New York Magazine essentially invented the trend by itself. In March 2018, writer Katy Schnieder was told to investigate a coat that her editor had seen a handful of very cool, very fancy ladies on the Upper East Side of Manhattan wearing (the newsworthy thing about this being that the coat was cheap).
The story didn’t go viral until the next winter, when the New York Times referenced it in a piece about stylish Brooklyn moms — that’s when an entire Instagram account devoted to Amazon coat sightings sprung up and seemingly every other website picked it up, too. By that point, the media coverage was guilty of actually creating the virality that they’d already reported on. Thus, “the Amazon coat” invented itself, exemplifying the bizarre ways the internet and consumer habits often interact.
4) The MAGA hat that said so much more
Over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, there was one inescapable image online and on cable news: that of a smirking teenage boy in a red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap, staring into the eyes of a Native American elder.
Videos of a group of MAGA hat-wearing teens mocking Native American chants on the National Mall after DC’s March for Life had gone viral, prompting a national controversy over what really happened, and whether the kids were simply defending themselves from insults by a separate group of protesters. The teen, who was quickly identified as Covington Catholic student Nick Sandmann, delivered a statement that was edited by a GOP-connected public relations firm, and as Vox’s Zach Beauchamp argues, became a kind of Rorschach test for viewers’ political leanings. White teens in MAGA hats, which have become a popular trend among school groups visiting the Capitol, remain a threatening symbol to many Americans. The Covington Catholic controversy only heightened that tension.
5) The hat that challenged cowboy culture
2019 was the year country western style got a makeover; the year that yeehaw became, as pop country star Kacey Musgraves coined it, yeehaw couture. Everyone, from Post Malone to Cardi B to Solange, embraced cowboy clothes and in turn challenged the idea of what country could be.
The person who truly shook up country music’s reputation as a genre for straight white people in flyover states, though, was Lil Nas X. Rarely seen in 2019 without a signature oversized cowboy hat, his trap-country banger “Old Town Road” went viral on TikTok this spring, and though it ultimately broke records as the longest running chart-topper in history, it’s easy to forget that when it first debuted, the song ignited a controversy over what “real” country was when Billboard removed it from its country chart. Luckily, Lil Nas X kept on riding his horse to the old town road, and with it changed the sound and look of the genre.
6) All the clothes Meghan Markle wore while trying to shield her pregnancy from the tabloids
Tabloid culture has a nasty history of treating women’s body parts like accessories, and nowhere is that more evident than when a celebrity is pregnant. Throughout Meghan Markle’s tenure as the Duchess of Sussex, she’s received praise and been condemned for both breaking royal clothing protocol and subsequently toning down her personal style in favor of more traditional silhouettes. Being a divorced, biracial American in the royal family, it doesn’t matter what decisions she makes: they’ll be scrutinized all the same.
And yet this year, Markle has stood her ground against an industry committed to disparaging her at every turn, at great expense to herself. Months after giving birth to baby Archie in May, Markle revealed in an interview how challenging the public pressure on her had been during her pregnancy and as a new mom. She and husband Prince Harry have since announced a lawsuit against the parent company of the Daily Mail for the tabloid’s ruthless coverage of the couple, sending a strong message to the British press. Despite constant accusations of “showing off” or “acting,” flaunting her “baby bump” was perhaps the least important item on Meghan Markle’s to-do list this year.
7) The power turtleneck from the show about rich people
You’d think a show about a family of billionaire WASPs in the media business wouldn’t have a very interesting costume closet. Not so, thanks to Succession’s Siobhan Roy. In the second season of the hit HBO drama, she transformed into a major contender to take over her father’s massive media conglomerate, with absolutely amazing pants.
To emphasize that transformation, costume designer Michelle Matland dressed Shiv in crisp high-waisted trousers and form-fitting black turtlenecks to match her new power bob. ”[Shiv’s] the personification of power and success, and she’s looking every bit the visual equal to any of her male counterparts,” Matland told Vox at the time. Even though no one in this show is really all that great of a person, at least we’ll always be rooting for Shiv’s wardrobe.
8) The phrase that became a generational rallying cry that became a T-shirt
Did someone over the age of 55 say something stupid? Now, there’s a response for that. “OK boomer,” the two-word dismissal of the near-constant baby boomer-versus-millennials and Gen Z debate, went massively viral within minutes of the publication of a New York Times trend piece on the subject, which described teens commenting “OK boomer” on condescending videos or tweets by older people.
Of course, people were already making money off of it. There was a song. One 19-year-old’s “OK boomer” T-shirts and hoodies received more than $10,000 in orders after promoting them on TikTok. Brands started using the phrase in social media promotions (which is incorrect, because all brands are inherently boomers).
Boomers, naturally, took it all very gracefully (a conservative radio host called it “the n-word of ageism”). Old people and young people will never not be complaining about each other, but the debate takes on a particular urgency considering policy decisions carried out by boomers have created an increasingly inhospitable planet for millennials and Gen Z. When you just can’t argue anymore, “OK boomer” is there.
9) The accessory that somehow came back in sksksk-style
Is there an ’80s accessories trend as maligned as the scrunchie? There isn’t. Against the odds though, in 2019 the scrunchie ascended to its throne at the top of the high school feudal system thanks to a niche trend popularized on TikTok: VSCO girls.
VSCO girls was the nickname used to describe a certain type of largely white, largely middle class teen girls who dressed in the aesthetics of chill eco-consciousness but whose consumption habits trended basic. VSCO girls love big T-shirts, Birkenstocks, and wrist scrunchies just as much as they love $40 water bottles, Swedish backpacks, and Starbucks (to be drunk using their own metal straws, of course). Though the term originated mostly in self-deprecating jokes on YouTube and TikTok, it quickly felt like just another mechanism to discount young women. Leave VSCO girls and their scrunchies alone!
10) The kink-inspired accessory that was suddenly on straight men
If you were a hot actor in 2019, you might have worn a harness, and not in like, a stuntman way. The fashion accessory, long a staple of the queer and BDSM subculture, made its way onto celebrities like Timothée Chalamet, Chadwick Boseman, and Michael B. Jordan this year. Part of that’s thanks to arguably the most important fashion designer working today, Virgil Abloh of streetwear brand Off-White, whose first collection for Louis Vuitton included various takes on harnesses for men.
Fashion has borrowed from kink culture for decades, though, it just so happens that now, it’s during a time when actual leather scenes are dying out. Harnesses, like so many trendy fashion items of the 2010s, are indicative of both a greater acceptance of diverse sexualities and an increasing homogeneity of society.
11) The accessory that was a human head
This year’s Met Gala theme was a notoriously slippery one — what even is “camp,” anyway? But one thing many attendees agreed on while posing on the pink carpet was that when all else fails, just show up as a walking joke. There was Zendaya as an extremely literal Cinderella, Kacey Musgraves as Barbie, Katy Perry as a chandelier, Billy Porter as an Egyptian pharaoh, and Lady Gaga in not one, not two, but four increasingly naked looks.
Then there was Jared Leto carrying a human head. Not just any head, but an exact replica of his own. Though it spurned plenty of memes, what’s weirdest about the look is that it’s been done before: Leto’s look came straight from the Gucci runway, which featured models carrying versions of their own heads while decked out in thousand-dollar creations. It solidified Leto as everything he’s known for on the red carpet: a little bit weird but not weird enough to be all that interesting, and mostly just sort of corny.
12) The coolest, ugliest shoes ever
For a little under $60, you too could own the sneakers almost every cool or semi-cool or really-wants-to-be cool kid in their teens or early 20s wears when they want to look like they’re not trying. The only problem is that they’re absolutely hideous.
That’s obviously part of the point, of course. Only the latest iteration of the years-long ugly shoe trend, Fila Disruptors, the all-white clompers inescapable on high school campuses, are as beloved as they are despised. They’re a meme unto themselves, with a coalition of streetwear snobs hating them so much that they’ve become almost so uncool that they’re cool. The Fila Disruptor is so big, so bulky, and so ubiquitous that the pendulum is almost certainly going to swing back the other way in 2020. But in 2019, it was the shoe that reached viral status, both offline and on.
13) The thong at the basketball game
The world learned in 2019 that Lizzo is not to be fucked with. If you’re a designer who refuses to make clothes for plus size women, she’ll call you out. And if you’re upset that she happened to wear a thong to a basketball game, that’s your problem.
Lizzo has, over the past year, exploded into seemingly everyone’s favorite artist. Politicians love her. Her upbeat, endlessly danceable anthems are impossible to avoid singing along to, and her message is simple and uplifting: be brave and confident, regardless of what society has to say about your body. Her costumes on her tour this year were both skimpy and gorgeous, typical for female pop stars but so often reserved only for the thin among them, and in between songs she delivered impassioned screeds on body positivity.
Which is why when Lizzo attended a Lakers game in December, she wore an extremely Lizzo outfit: a black T-shirt dress with a back opening that, during an impromptu performance of her song “Juice,” exposed her thong. The crowd cheered, obviously, and when body shamers descended on Twitter, Lizzo responded via Instagram livestream: “I’m surrounded by love, and I just want to spread that love — and also spread these cheeks. And you know what? If you really, really don’t like my ass, you can kiss it. ‘Cause kissing it makes it go away. I promise.” A great energy to take into 2020.
Sign up for The Goods’s newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.
Author: Rebecca Jennings