"Swingers" and the Fashion Faux Pas that Swept America
"Swingers" and the Fashion Faux Pas that Swept America
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date April 18, 2018
Some films go down in cinema history for their costumes alone. Perhaps they perfectly capture a unique cultural moment before it disappears. Maybe they illuminate the brilliant wardrobe of a bygone era. And sometimes, the costumes just look really cool.
Swingers is not one of those films.
The wardrobe in Jon Favreau’s breakout indie, following braggadocious young actors on the prowl for “babies” in ‘90s LA, you can’t help but cringe. Open, oversized bowling shirts. Chunky, bright, too-long ties. Half-assed zoot suits. Wallet chains. Gabardine shirts. High-waisted baggy pants. Fedoras. If young Vince Vaughn wasn’t so damn pretty, watching the film would hurt your eyes just looking at it.
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Arguing the costumes in Swingers are bad is not a wild notion. The more interesting question, though, is wondering if people actually thought they were good. In the heyday of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, did the men of the era actually look in the mirror and think, “this is my look!” Did women go to bars, see a guy dressed in an XL bowling shirt open to reveal an extra tight tank beside his buddy in an eyesore of a broad chunky tie and think, “these guys look good!”
The answer is complicated. Were these trends sweeping the nation, even in America’s fashion capitals? Yes. Still, cultural commentators at the time derided the style, and within five years, the so-called “Cocktail Nation” or “swing revival” moment had come and gone. In hindsight, there exists a viable argument for reactionary conservatism in the baggy pants and bowling shirts.
Before we get to the critique, a word of kindness to the costume designer. Genevieve Tyrrell has had a long and successful career in the business since Swingers, and with credits like Mistresses and Veronica Mars under her belt, we know that “Rat Pack meets swing” is not her calling card. With a total budget of a little over $250,000, corners needed to be cut—the film didn’t even have a proper Director of Photography. The first feature Tyrrell worked on, the costume designer had to rely on the actors’ personal wardrobe, common in many indies. Unfortunately for Tyrrell and the moviegoing public, Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau were very into swing clubs at the time, and Los Angeles as a whole was in the grips of the swing revival.
Discussing the film with Grantland, Vaughn said, “When Jon moved to L.A., I started to take him out to a lot of these swing music places. A lot of the old punk rock bands started to play swing. It was an alternative to the alternative scene — great live music, people dressing up, and the dancing was fun in a fun, intimate way. You would go and dance with a girl and hang out. It was really conversational. It was like being back in Chicago, where people would actually talk.”
It didn’t necessarily matter to the men in East Hollywood at that time if they looked good. They wanted to feel good. In the booming ‘90s, out of work actors took to thrift store throwbacks to mask that they weren’t feeling the financial optimism embraced by the rest of the country. In the film, Favreau’s character is shut down by a woman immediately when he’s asked what kind of car he drives. If you can’t afford a Cadillac, the logic went, at least try to dress like you could.
Favreau said as much in interviews at the time. He described the club scene of the era as filled with people who were ''running out of money and bored to tears, with nothing better to do than dress up like they just stepped out of some Scorsese movie. They're all in black leather jackets and introducing each other like they're saying hello to the Don. But you listen to what they're saying and they're all talking about what kind of products they're using in their hair.''
Critic Gregory Crosby took the phenomenon Favreau describes and applied it to the broader historical moment. “Between the end of World War II and the revolutions of the ‘60s, America was at its most vibrant, powerful, confident, and influential. When Swingers bowed in 1996, in the all-too-brief moment between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, America was enjoying a moment of optimism that was not unlike the been-there, drank-that spirit that the Cocktail Nation was trying to invoke...the ghosts of the Rat Pack and the New Frontier appeared in the newly blue skies of America’s triumphant moment in the ‘90s...It was all so money, baby. Until it wasn’t,” he said.
Stereogum’s Tom Breihan, an admitted survivor of the era’s trends, offered a similar analysis. He wrote, “After grunge began to pass out of favor, this stuff seemed like its polar opposite: sharp, rather than slovenly, crisp and efficient rather than wild and intuitive, knowingly silly rather than deadly serious.”
Grunge and its accompanying aesthetic were all about beautiful decay. Gorgeous individuals dressed in a haphazard manner, their constant disarray highlighting the plights of teen angst and youth rebellion. While Kurt Cobain may be able to pull off a moth-devoured cardigan and destroyed flannels—or anything, for that matter—it is no doubt an experimental look. For the rest of the country, particularly suburbanites who more resemble Jon Favreau than Chris Cornell, the Rat Pack revival was an appealing, attainable look. It was certainly more comfortable.
Grunge was one of the most self-consciously and even pretentiously cool cultural moments in recent American history. Breihan argues that Hollywood was the first to offer a counterpoint to this cultural moment and the music world followed. Swingers wasn’t the only film to offer this crisp alternative to grunge. Films like Swing Kids (1993) and The Mask (1994) were precursors. The trend peaked shortly after Swingers blockbuster success, when acts like the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and the Squirrel Nut Zippers appeared on the national scene. Some altered their pre-existing aesthetic to chase the fad, and others, like the Brian Setzer Orchestra, re-emerged from obscurity alongside the swing boom. Suddenly, you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “Zoot Suit Riot.”
While someone with the build of the schlubby 200 plus pound Jon Favreau could look cool in a swing get-up, they probably couldn’t pull off the gutter Jesus look of Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder with much grace. What coolness there was in the swing revival, by contrast, was readily attainable. Any man could wear a boxy suit or a bowling shirt. And so they did: all across America.
Swingers actor Alex Désert recounted one of the most surreal moments post-Swingers when he started seeing fans on vacation bar crawls dressing the part:
>>>“After the movie came out it started to be a drag trying to go to those places...I remember going into the Dresden a bit after the movie came out and there was a crew of dudes that were kinda dressed like us in bowling shirts and hats. It turns out it was a bunch of dudes that had come in from Canada to do the Swingers crawl.”
This idea that this movement was a bid for coolness by uncool people was even evident at the time. No cultural commentator was surprised when GAP chose to center their khakis comeback campaign around “Jump Jive an’ Wail.”
In a 1998 Washington Post article Richard Harrington describes the swingsters as “refugees” from the grunge and post-punk movement. This was a movement for white people who didn’t feel cool enough or authentically connected to grunge or hip-hop.
It is hard to argue against the reactionary element of the Cocktail Nation. The swing revival came fully loaded with trappings of traditional white masculinity. You don’t have to watch Swingers or a Cherry Poppin’ Daddies music video to closely to see the tropes: cigars, scotch, Sinatra, baggy suits, fist fights.
Speaking to The Washington Post V. Vale, author of Swing! The New Retro Renaissance said that the neo-swing movement was “an embrace of forgotten and/or ignored aspects of the American experience…a reemergence of diplomacy, social grace, and courtesy...the return of manners, a backlash against grunge and rap where manners are the last thing they are concerned about.”
It’s perhaps unfair to go as far as Spin who called the swing revival, “akin the twisted and cheeky cocktail-tiki-kitsch underground and reducing it to another excuse for straight white chuckleheads to play dress-up in Mommy and Daddy’s clothes, get drunk, and dance like the Nazis never invaded Poland,” in a breakdown of the “Worst Moments of the ‘90s.”
There are undoubtedly problematic aspects of the swing resurgence—most notably its unabashed whiteness. Unlike the suspender clad MAGA Pepes of our current political climate, however, the subculture was not a consciously racist movement. The AV Club’s assessment that the era was a “reductive throwback lump” and “painfully conservative...painfully escapist” is debatebly more fair, if not a bit naive. This explanation matches Vince Vaughn’s own perception that Cocktail Nation was an “alternative to alternative,” offering a classic, throwback, explicitly caucasian, explicitly heterosexual counterculture to the counterculture.
The fashion of the swing revival is only a mystery if we forget that fashion is not always about looking good. Sometimes it is about feeling good. Sometimes fashion is reactionary, conservative, and even ugly. And if the fashion of this era was never about looking good, but rather about grasping on to waning style amidst a rushing cultural tidal wave that felt foreign, alienating and way too cool, it should by definition be bad. It shouldn’t surprise us that the clothes in Swingers are so ugly. They were never about looking good in the first place.