Clothing trends cycle in and out of fashion at intervals just long enough to outlast most closets’ capacity before roaring back into stores. Those who have the patience and foresight to hang on to, say, a No Fear shirt from the 1990s now have what a Williamsburg thrift-store owner might think of as hipster gold. Nothing conveys “cool” in places like Austin or Silverlake or Logan Square like an ugly old thing worn with ironic confidence. Not even having a real personality.
Social mores don’t work the same way fashion does. Fashion comebacks don’t do any harm besides stymying parents who take their tweens school shopping. Ideological comebacks can harm actual people.
In 1975, a woman named Carmita Wood tried to apply for unemployment benefits after she quit her job at Cornell University. Wood alleged that her supervisor had touched her inappropriately and that the school had refused to transfer her. The ensuing swell in support for Wood’s case minted the term “sexual harassment.” Subsequent investigations into the phenomenon revealed that a staggering percentage of women had experienced it. Outrage followed, and laws followed that, and unintentionally hilarious instructional videos on how not to sexually harass your coworkers followed that. In 1991, sexual harassment was taken so seriously that it almost derailed the nomination of a Supreme Court justice. Almost.
Suffice to say, sexual harassment has been frowned upon for quite some time. And out-of-favor sexual politics shouldn’t be storming back into fashion like circa-1991 Nirvana chic at a Bushwick warehouse party.
But here we are.
The company Thinx developed a reputation for being a sort of hipster feminist darling, a company daring to espouse the DGAF aesthetic of the modern Cool Girl during its short life. Its only product—underwear designed for women to menstruate directly into—was advertised stylishly, irreverently, confrontationally, as products selling destigmatization tend to do.
Over the last weeks, that all came crashing down. Reports across female-focused media, from Racked to Jezebel to New York magazine’s The Cut revealed a company culture that seemed to be very much at odds with its feminist public face. Employees were allegedly underpaid and offered just two weeks’ maternity leave. And inside the company’s headquarters, founder and “She-EO” Miki Agrawal was reportedly running things like a piggish boss in a reboot of Nine to Five. According to The Cut, employees of Thinx allege that Agrawal was a serial sexual harasser who made working with her impossible. One employee alleged that Agrawal was particularly fixated on breasts, frequently commenting on and grabbing them. Agrawal also allegedly changed clothes in front of her employees and occasionally called into meetings from her toilet.
Agrawal has been defensive of the work environment she created, insisting that she’s just being forward thinking and subversive. You know, cool. Like a pair of high-waisted Lee jeans at Pitchfork Music Fest. Nevertheless, she stepped down last week, and Thinx is going to get itself an HR department to clean up the mess.
Agrawal isn’t the first to deliver the archaic in an ironic package. In fact, hipster sexism has found a home in the modern cool-kid milieu. In the mid-Aughts, fashion photographer Terry Richardson was alleged to have had similar disregard for the personal boundaries of his professional contacts and was accused of sexual misconduct several times. Same goes for American Apparel honcho Dov Charney, whose brand of sexual creepiness couldn’t have helped his brand much (its final days are happening as we speak. Spandex adult onesies and sensible hoodies for everybody!). The alt-lit community was similarly burdened with accusations of sexual misconduct by its powerful figures.
Other -isms have been harnessed ironically as well. Gavin McInnes, cofounder of Vice (who has since left the company), is now a darling of the alt-right. But his message and conservatism isn’t all that different from the late Phyllis Schlafly. Prior to her death last year, the prim-until-the-end Schlafly posited that campus rape happens more now because more women are going to college and that nice girls don’t get sexually harassed. In 2014, McInnes suggested the current popular understanding of college sexual assault’s frequency was a feminist lie dating back to 1987, and frequently stood up for men accused of sexual harassment. He’s decades younger than Schlafly and may have been half of the team that figured out how to bottle up and sell modern counterculture, but his message is the same. Just with some tattoos and mustache wax.
Richard Spencer, a man who occasionally dresses fashionably, has been touted as the new face of white American nationalism. He wouldn’t stand out, looks-wise, in Central Eastside, Portland. But there’s nothing new about him. If his rhetoric were a brand of soda, it’d be Nazi Classic.
A similarly regressive push exists among pick-up artists, California parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, Park Slope parents who bootleg unpasteurized milk under the assumption that somehow it’s better if it’s “raw.”
What Agrawal allegedly did to her employees at Thinx is certainly awful, but it’s not surprising nor is it particularly unique for this particular cultural moment. Self-anointed “edgy” figures have been latching onto antiquated behavior—sexism, racism, puritanism, fear of science, etc.—so frequently of late that it’s become a bit of a mini-trend unto itself. It’s no more novel or new than a pair of vintage Reebok Pumps. And, to be honest, it’s probably worth less.