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I’d never anticipated the premiere of a show quite like I did the original Jersey Shore. “It’s going to be amazing,” I kept saying, and everyone in Staten Island agreed. Having lived on the outskirts of New York City, only a few miles (but still, somehow, a world away) from the fashion epicenter for most of my life, I often felt like people from just about anywhere else lived in another version of America, one I couldn’t find my way into. The realities of the working-class, pseudo-suburban lifestyle of where I was from seemed like something so highly specific, so layered and complex, that it was impossible to explain.
So the trailers for Jersey Shore were promising as far as offering up a cultural touchpoint to begin to make sense of outer-borough culture. With three of the nine original cast members hailing from “the forgotten borough” (mine) and a bevy of Facebook friends already in common with the cast, I felt like the show could be a long-overdue representation of what life looked like in my corner of the world.
My boyfriend and I made a date out of that first episode when it aired on December 3, 2009. (This was the pre-“Netflix and chill” era; I guess they used to call it “appointment television.”) When Mike Sorrentino came on the screen in his distressed, low-slung Diesel jeans and a black Armani tee, introducing himself as “the Situation” and gesturing to his toned, artificially suntanned abdomen, we laughed until we cried. When Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi sauntered in with a “Bump It” hairstyle, leopard-print camisole, and lip gloss such a pasty pink that I could feel its flaky consistency just from watching her speak, we erupted, exultant, with recognition.
Forget the soggy oversize sweaters and delicate lace-trimmed tank tops from scripted teen shows like The OC. Here was a version of early adulthood that I recognized, dressed up in knockoff Louis Vuitton and neon polyester.
Snooki, Pauly D, Mike, Ronnie, JWoww, Vinny, and the rest have reunited to tape Family Vacation, airing April 5. In a countdown to this reunion special, MTV will air several “greatest hits” style episodes that splice together clips of the cast’s best (worst?) moments in a trip down memory freaking lane. And I can’t wait to see their clothes again. Because in the years after Jersey Shore made its big debut, their entire dress culture disappeared.
People living at the fringes of New York City in the mid- to late aughts held a very specific dress culture of their own, and these trends did not mirror (or, okay, even really resemble) the sleek, straightened turn-of-the-millennium aesthetic that prevailed just a few miles across the bay. These young people onscreen, most of them from second-generation Italian-American families, were raised the same way I had been: surrounded by the city-life exaltation of brand-name acquisition, distinctly American but also a bit new to understanding what “being American” might mean.
The status symbolism of wearing Chanel flats or an FCUK sweatshirt conveyed a sense of having “made it” in America while preserving a European sensibility. The name recognition of these brands carried with it the mother tongue of class distinction, a language steeped in signifiers: The same brands that shouted wealth when they were seen on the streets of Naples or Rome would, in theory, communicate the same when they were purchased at a TJ Maxx and worn grocery shopping in Long Island, even if they were dumbed down and commodified by mass production.
Snagging a few statement pieces from brands that seemed higher-end was also comparatively affordable, enabling kids with more working-class backgrounds to achieve what they thought was an upscale look that was still within economic reach.
And so it was that nine years ago, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a girl from Staten Island (myself included) whose go-to barfly outfit didn’t involve animal print, an obi belt, stilettos, and a bright pastel lip. Part what Christian Audigier called “tattoo lifestyle,” part underground club scene, this was a very involved and specific fashion ideal that mixed aspirational couture with streetwear. It paired rhinestone-accented, midriff-grazing tanks with VS Pink-brand sweats and Ugg boots, without a hint of irony.
Dressing this way was an elaborate, ongoing dare to look a bit ridiculous, the point of which was to get right to the edge of going “over the top” without falling over into objectively obnoxious territory. What we didn’t know, what we were about to discover, was that according to the rest of the country, “tacky” was already our way of life.
My boyfriend and I weren’t alone in our new favorite pastime of laughing along with the Jersey Shore cast’s attire and antics. But while we were laughing because of what felt familiar, the rest of the nation wasn’t laughing with us — they were laughing at us. For most Americans living west of Trenton, the very existence of someone like “Snooki” was a farce; her arsenal of leather and leopard-print everything became an instant caricature of an attention-seeking person who, viewers believed, had to know she looked like a fool.
For some of us, the show had taken something familiar and brought it out of tune, like hearing your own tape-recorded voice for the first time and finding out that what you thought sounded sweet was shrill. Relegated to the outer boroughs, the “guidette” look could almost maintain a farce of normalcy. Now that everyone could see it, it was just a farce.
The show premiered in December 2009, and the market started noticeably responding early the following year. While some companies were racing to crack into product placement on reality TV (they were calling it “advertainment”), brands were desperate to get away from the Jersey Shore effect. Abercrombie & Fitch, for example, went to great lengths to prevent association with the stars of the show. High-end purse retailers took to sending Snooki competitors’ bags in a strange act of guerrilla anti-marketing. Some bars even banned the crew’s go-to fashion brands.
And the founders of Juicy Couture, a label that was already experiencing some decrease in sales due to the recession, outright left the brand they created in 2010, frustrated at an internal lack of company support to take designs in a fresher direction than JWoww’s tired blinged-out sweatsuits. The label has since mostly been relegated to the sale section at Kohl’s. Due to the toxic cocktail of reality television star association, grating marketing tactics, and bad bets on fads, brands like Ed Hardy and French Connection sank in popularity.
By 2012, tailored dresses, closed-toe flats, and neutral colors had taken over the nighttime scene at the beach bars, Long Island lounges, and Queens pubs claimed by the near-urban un-elite. Wardrobes were overhauled. Closets were KonMari’d. My cousins asked for button-down shirts for Christmas to replace what they used to wear to the club. The catalyst was the infamy of the Jersey Shore crew’s outfits. Nobody wanted to look like that anymore.
While trends shift in every cultural moment, this active rejection of the fashion subculture was a sudden, reactionary one. Casualties of Jersey Shore effect in my neck of the woods included neon T-shirts with sayings on them (blame Angelina’s angry exeunt as she quit the Seaside Heights boardwalk T-shirt store), platform sneakers, the trend of wearing giant fuzzy slippers out of the house, trucker hats, gel-topped blowouts, and peekaboo tiny miniskirts.
I suppose it’s possible Jersey Shore arrived onscreen at the same moment these trends were reaching their apex and the inevitable blowback was already on its way. But when you find out that your hometown’s signature look is somebody else’s idea of a Halloween costume, it certainly hastens the end of those trends.
Snooki and co. were pioneers in their use of the emerging self-promotional opportunities that reality television stars now take as a given. There did appear to be a moment, albeit a brief one, when the characters of Jersey Shore could parlay their “unique” design sensibilities into marketable consumer goods. And, with the exception of Mike Sorrentino’s personal and legal woes, the cast has mostly emerged from the overcrowded depths of the D-list to inhabit a still-profitable niche.
But the “Snooki” look, a decade later, is one that’s now understood to belong only, specifically, to Snooki (and to Deena, and to JWoww). And Nicole Polizzi herself now parlays the signatures of her style into significantly dialed-back and demure pieces offered through three eponymous clothing lines. (She also lends her name to a line of Happy Feet fuzzy slippers, which, to each their own!)
When the cast returns to screens for Jersey Shore: Family Vacation, they’ll likely be kitted out in some retrofitted version of their OG threads, in an act of performed nostalgia. The lasting legacy of their show, wardrobe-wise, has been the complete fashion assimilation of the working-class kids in the outer rim of Manhattan. The exile of their beloved brands is so complete that said brands have been banished to the territory of ironic hipster bros in Brooklyn (one might argue they’ve been ... gentrified?). Blazers, tailored blouses, and skinny jeans dominate “going out” attire in a fashion scene that now mimics what you’d see throughout the rest of America. What was special about the fashion subculture here has been effectively Snooki-shamed out of existence.
I feel it’s important to at least acknowledge that I married that guy who watched Jersey Shore with me in my mom’s basement all those years ago. It was partly our mutual ability to enjoy Jersey Shore for what we saw it as (a glorious echo chamber representing the ill-advised bad behaviors we recognized) instead of what MTV sold it to us as (an exaggerated mockery of the flawed culture we existed in) that woke me up to how compatible we were. Secret to life: Stick with the person who laughs with you, not at you. As for everybody else, they can take my dignity, but never my imitation snakeskin belt.