Late last week, in a moment that feels particular to the neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a girl in her early 20s with long, seemingly unwashed brown hair, stained denim cutoffs, scuffed boots and a loose white tank top that exposed lacy bra straps rode by on a bicycle and caught the attention of a 31-year-old man.
She belonged to the species of Dirty Girl that have been shuffling around this city for years: youthful, thrifty, indifferent to grooming—and in possession of an undeniable and confounding sex appeal.
“There are different kinds of hotness,” explained her admirer, who preferred not to be named. “Sometimes you see a woman and you think, ‘My God. I would do anything to take that woman out to a nice meal and see if she’s crazy enough to think I’m nice and marry me someday.’ And then there are times you’re walking home and you step into a bar and there is this chick in the corner and I can go home and have sex with her for a weekend. And those girls radiate that.”
The levels of trying and looking like you’re not, so that everyone knows you actually really, really are, have an appeal, he added. “You know how in middle school you would rip your jeans, and your parents would mock you? That’s kind of how I feel about them. It’s like you know that that was such a curated attempt that it inherently exposes a softness in the middle, a kind of vulnerability. Like, ‘You don’t know who you are very well yet, but you’re trying to create a facade that supports a certain thesis.’”
The Dirty Girls of New York have some well-known ambassadors, commonly found in the front rows of certain fashion shows and the pages of Nylon magazine and (with their nipples showing) on Purple magazine founder Olivier Zahm’s blog. They are well educated in the art of heavy eyeliner, like that smudged and smeared around Becka Diamond’s eyes; of concealing your actual, sizable wealth with vintage T-shirts, like Peaches and Pixie Geldof; and of uncombed hair, like that framing the disinterested, remote look of Cory Kennedy’s eyes. (All of the above are often identified as model or socialite or “It girl” or “party girl,” though their actual professional pursuits are unclear.)
Kennedy appeared in ad campaigns and on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily after the photographer (and her onetime boyfriend) Mark “The Cobra Snake” Hunter began posting photos of her on his website back in 2005. And though the look has all but disappeared from editorial pages, the photographer’s website is still a place where the number of skinny, adolescent thighs in ripped stockings, navels exposed by dingy crop tops and various states of intoxication demonstrated by suggestive poses on the ground would make any man, young or old, feel instant guilt—if not for having looked, then for the place their imagination took them. “I know a lot of those girls and for some of them it’s real, you know?” Hunter said. “They sleep in their clothes and then go to a party and they won’t shower, for real. I’m not a girl, but it must be a relief that that kind of look is acceptable because it’s a lot easier to pull off than throwing pounds of makeup on and trying to make your clothes steamed and unwrinkled and stuff. I’ve traveled with some of them, and they just throw their shit in their suitcase and they put it on wrinkled and then they just put dry shampoo in their hair. It’s a lifestyle.”
Asked about the appeal of the look to the opposite sex, Hunter said, “It just gets a dirty idea in your head. Like, ‘This girl is wild,’ or it’s just very sexual, like, ‘Let’s degrade this person.’”
Meanwhile, the fashion editors—who almost always take a position contrary to that of a straight man when it comes to what’s sexy—see the look a different way.
“Some people equate dirtiness with soulfulness—that it makes you interesting,” said Elle’s fashion news director, Anne Slowey. “I don’t think it’s necessarily one of fashion’s biggest trends, but kids of a certain age are always discovering it. But, it’s like, can’t someone rediscover Stephen Sprouse or Geoffrey Beene? Alex White is doing styling with Oscar de la Renta and re-creating that whole ‘Upper East Side kid mimicking parents’ thing, which is more interesting to me than always doing Marc’s Perry Ellis collection.
“I think it works for Cory Kennedy, but there is a fine line between expression and clamoring for attention,” she continued. “The minute it becomes … who was it that used to roll around on the floor at clubs? Or like Paz de la Huerta. I’ve seen her pick her nose and fling it across the restaurant, and at a certain point you’re just out of control.”
Slowey later added on The Observer’s answering machine, “Erin Wasson is like the epitome of the dirty underpants look, but even her line got cleaned up for fall.” (Last month, in fact, Wasson’s line for RVCA consisting of denim cutoffs and baby tees—the debut of which was marked by the model claiming, ‘Homeless people have the best style’—was discontinued altogether.)
What’s frustrating at this point—for someone who first glimpsed the Dirty Girl look eight years ago at New York University, tried it on and ultimately abandoned it by graduation—is that it still dominates young women’s idea of style. Even as the clothes on the runways have become beautiful and elegant and clean. Even as Alexander Wang has traded in his burnout tees in favor of deconstructed suits in sophisticated fabrics and pinstripes. And even as 17-year-old actress Taylor Momsen has amplified the look to an ungodly extreme, looking dirtier, cheaper and self-consciously more desperate than all the Dirty Girls before her.
But there is hope: Examine the spreads in the just-out September issues of the major fashion magazines, and you will find a refreshing precision to both the tailoring and hair-styling. “I think there’s always going to be a place for that rebellious dirty look with the torn sweaters and leggings,” said Katie Connor, Marie Claire’s fashion features editor. “But in terms of what we’re looking at on the runways, right now, it’s much more a return to the classics, and what we’re seeing is very ladylike—it’s longer hemlines and square top-handle bags. That goes directly in the face of these young starlets in the tattered clothes.”
Even Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, who arrived in the hallways of NYU practicing what became known as homeless chic, seem to be cleaning up. (The latter is Marie Claire’s cover girl this month, with pink lips and a tailored jacket slung over her shoulders.)
“I look at the Olsen twins, and they’ve come so far in terms of when they first came to New York and started that whole wide-gaping-holes-in-your-leggings look,” Connor said. “Now they’re talking about how they would love to see the first lady wear The Row or Elizabeth and James”—their fashion lines—“and you see even in them this shift toward sophistication.”
Perhaps that will soon trickle down, and all these wanly bicycling, pallid Williamsburg Winonas will morph into the Betties of Brooklyn Heights?
But for now the Dirty Girls are still with us: staring out blankly from American Apparel ads and most concentrated in the photographs of Hunter.
“There are always people who will live this lifestyle,” Hunter said, “And people who will follow it, get bored and change. But I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”
Perhaps that’s exactly what the Dirty Girl look is, then: a phase, no different from mean boyfriends or naval piercings, that will always define a time in young womanhood and that, inevitably, passes with time. “They are clearly investing a lot of time into how they get dressed—and in lieu of what can be a whole conversation,” Slowey said. “And then they grow up or they actually have the talent to back it up, like Chloë Sevigny, and eventually they probably want to start marketing themselves somehow, whether they are actresses or performers, and they’re going to have to start taking themselves seriously. At some point how you look becomes business. It’s fun to slum it, but there is a shelf life to that.”