What do we say when we say "it's ugly"?

Fashion journalist for ten years, Alice Pfeiffer cultivates a passion for ugly: far from chasing luxury pieces branded like so many others, she accumulates “ugly”, “kitsch”, “old-fashioned”, “vulgar” objects . Names that cut across different realities, as she demonstrates in The taste of ugly (Flammarion).

“The ugly is not the opposite of the beautiful, which is built around a harmony suggesting an intrinsic link between the external and the internal,” she explains in her book. This pariah of ‘good’ taste exists in a peripheral zone of sensitivity: it is not necessarily synonymous with repulsive or devilish. “Remains obvious: ugly bothers, or at least, never leaves you indifferent.

Ugly, but what ugly?

Exploring the world of ugly is a challenge as the subject is so difficult to pin down. Alice Pfeiffer therefore navigates between “failure, kitsch, old-fashioned, vulgar, disgusting, pretty-ugly and neo-ugly”. According to the author, kitsch may be the only form of ugly that finds favor in the eyes of all: “it is a kind of folklore, vital to society”. The other forms of ugly that she describes are most often singled out: failure implies the shame of the one who has arrived there when he realizes his oddity, the old-fashioned discredit the person who has recourse to it, the vulgar , “Friction between the beautiful, the ugly and the scandalous”, offends the moral, the disgusting repels, disgusts “and paradoxically fascinates us”. As for the pretty-ugly and the neo-ugly, these are more conceptual approaches that combine a shift in styles, precursory trends and nostalgic obsolescence.

Whatever the variation, the ugly disturbs because it goes against the good-thinking. It is therefore above all a question of social relations: “by decreeing the ugly aspect of an object, we measure its distance and we position ourselves socially”. Claiming the ugly is therefore “to hide the dominant tastes, not to say ‘dominators’, to question and transgress the moral order”.

Subversive, protesting or real fiasco, the ugly is just as elusive as the elegant, the refined or the pleasant. This is because it is basically just as subjective. Alice Pfeiffer becomes aware of this during her investigation, which leads her to refrain from giving too many examples to illustrate her remarks: “I had to quickly resolve the obvious: I was speaking from the point of view of ‘a privileged person, Parisian, white and integrated into the fashion system, to the point of having felt naturally, even unconsciously, legitimate to decree the disgrace of objects, trends, entire cultures. In fact, they said more about me than the other way around ”. First exercise to get out of easy judgments: do not stop at the cover and the layout of the book, to appreciate the content instead.

For further

The taste of ugly
Alice Pfeiffer


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