Gunnar Deatherage recently dressed for revenge. The YouTube creator and designer was going through a breakup when he decided to turn his heartbreak into power in the form of a gown. “Instead of saying that I was going through a breakup, why not put a fun twist to it?” Deatherage tells Refinery29. The dress was equal parts elegant and vampy, made with fabric he already owned to symbolise how people need to “start from zero” when they’re going through a breakup. “There’s no better revenge than looking great,” he says.
Revenge fashion has taken over the collective imagination over the past few years, thanks to the continued interest in Princess Diana’s so-called “revenge dress,” as well as people using fashion to give the middle finger to the current chaos brought on by social, political and economic upheaval. Last year, the phenomenon of “revenge shopping” sparked sales for retailers worldwide, with global shopping platform Lyst reporting a rise in searches for dresses and high heels in the first few months of 2021. As people stepped back outside, dramatic upheavals ensued, with searches for “revenge dress” on TikTok growing to over 9 billion views, while searches for “revenge dress outfits” has over 200 million views. Just recently, Taylor Swift’s Midnights also took on revenge dressing, when the singer addressed the concept in her song “Vigilante Shit,” saying: “Lately, she’s been dressing for revenge.”
From the 1990s to now, the practice of revenge dressing continues to enthuse people who both see it happen in action and want to try it out for themselves. But, what does this actually look like in real life? On TikTok, there’s a few options: skin-tight casual dresses, glittery nightclub-ready frocks, opera gloves, leather trench coats, thigh-high boots, and open-back maxi dresses are all in the mix. It’s clear that revenge fashion is allowing people to reclaim negative experiences and giving the middle finger to the past.
Creator and designer Kiana Bonollo is crafting clothes for women to have revenge, creating a collection of vengeance-geared pieces titled, “Heartbreaker,” which include five looks in a black, red, and white colour palette. “All of the outfits in this collection are very revenge-worthy,” Bonollo says. “A revenge outfit to me really is something that makes you feel super powerful and confident on your own.” The pieces all exude a sense of showstopping glamour: from a red leather corset, paired with pink trousers to an all-black mermaid gown with a chest cut-out.
While creating the collection, Bonollo pulled inspiration from her own experience too. “Years and years ago, I had this one ex who absolutely hated it when I showed any sliver of skin, hated any time I would dress even remotely sexy, or when I felt confident either in myself or just my clothing,” Bonollo remembers. “So this collection is kind of the antithesis of that in both style and who the woman wearing those clothes is.”
Even as people create their own version of revenge fashion today, Princess Diana’s 1994 dress continues to be a reference point. “She is the revenge outfit queen,” says Deatherage.
Just ask The Crown’s costume design team, Amy Roberts and Sidonie Roberts, who were tasked with recreating the famed black dress Princess Diana wore in the show’s fifth season. “It's kind of representing the death of a marriage, a move away from the palace and then the rebirth of this kind of independent woman,” said Sidonie Roberts in a recent press conference. “[She is] finding her own voice and becoming even more of a legendary fashion icon in her own way.”
For Roberts, the biggest signifier of this pivotal moment in Princess Diana’s life – which marked the day her then-husband King Charles admitted publicly he had cheated on her– was the choice to wear black. According to Roberts, royal family members only wear black when in mourning, which meant that she had never dressed a character in black for The Crown outside of a funeral. “It becomes quite symbolic,” she says. “The revenge dress is like the ultimate little black dress.”
Today, wearing black is still synonymous with revenge in pop culture. Take, for example, Taylor Swift’s Reputation era in 2017, when the singer sported a dark purple and black colour palette after re-emerging following her public feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. That same year, singer Selena Gomez wore a black leather dress to the American Music Awards, following her breakup with musician The Weeknd. Back in 1997, Mariah Carey took to the red carpet in a black crop top and maxi skirt combo to the MTV VMAs right after her split from former husband Tommy Mottola. Earlier this year, Julia Fox opened the fall 2022 LaQuan Smith show wearing a black long-sleeved dress, following her breakup from Kanye West.
“I personally believe black is like the most powerful colour,” says Deatherage. “Black outfits are typically reserved for mourning, and I feel like there's like a power and vengeance in wearing it in a moment that is not that.” But much like Princess Diana, there is a process of mourning that may not have to do so much with a death, but with letting go of parts of ourselves. Taylor Swift let go of her “good girl” persona, for example, while Julia Fox entered the next chapter of her It-girl journey — by herself.
It’s also about making a statement to oneself, according to Deatherage. “When I feel like I need to prove a point, whether it's to someone else, particularly myself, like I will really put together an outfit,” he says, adding that his perfect revenge outfit includes an all-black head-to-toe leather ensemble with “very expensive sunglasses.” Meanwhile, Bonollo says she’d go for something similar to what she’s seen on social media: “I feel like the ongoing theme is to wear something black, sexy, and showing some skin.”
Ultimately, when going for revenge, the best strategy is to serve it dressed for yourself. “If I look incredible and put myself together and feel good from the inside out, there's nothing that anyone can say to me,” says Deatherage.