Of all the characters to emerge from the second season of The White Lotus, all eyes have suddenly turned towards Portia. Online discourse has debated whether the Gen Z character is the best or worst dressed among her fellow fictional holidaymakers. Many have ruminated on what her outfits reveal about her state of mind and sparked theories as to whether the bright colours and mismatched prints she sports foreshadow her fate on the popular TV show.
The unconfident and jaded assistant (played by Haley Lu Richardson) begrudgingly follows her boss, wealthy socialite Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), on a holiday in Sicily. When she can slip away from her responsibilities, Portia talks the ear off anyone who will listen, delivering angsty monologues about the absence of thrill, adventure and fulfilment in her life.
Portia's lack of self-assuredness is matched by her wardrobe, which consists of a multicoloured bolero paired with a zebra-striped bikini, nylon ripple print and, of course, the flamboyant swan vest she wears in episode one.
While it could be shrugged off as maximalist expression, what Portia wears is actually more emblematic of a faltering sense of personal style that's been spurred by the pandemic and is being felt by hordes of women her age. In the second season of The White Lotus, it's being represented for the first time en masse in popular culture.
In lockdown, we all turned to our phones for security and stability, ramping up our screen time reports with endless hours scrolling on TikTok. The proliferation of the e-Girl promised an alternative edginess with highlight streaks framing the face, graphic-lined eyes and checkered prints that would make you stand out from the crowd — until everyone else picked up on the trend as well.
Two years on, the micro-trends spurred by this monumental aesthetic continue to churn out a fast turnover of style offspring and even inspired a self-fulfilling fallacy: being 'cheugy'. Remember avant basic? It's a thing of the past now. The glittery strawberry print dress at the height of cottagecore? We don't know her anymore.
If you walk down the street right now, you might see a sea of low-waist jeans, siren eyes and baby tees — outfit ingredients that should, in theory, work together for an alternative fit. But there's a soullessness behind the garb that makes it unclear if the wearers actually like what they've thrown together or feel like they just should be wearing it. In two months' time, they might not even be anymore.
TikTok's predecessor, Tumblr, was home to a plethora of defined aesthetics, which had stronger ties to music, art and the zeitgeist during its heyday — some of which are experiencing a revival, like indie sleaze and twee. The subcultures of these aesthetics were based on a way of life — literally — and were held onto for years at a time.
The confusion of styles nowadays is a conscious sentiment on the minds of The White Lotus team, who make the decision to always have something a little bit off when it comes to Portia's outfits.
"Portia is consumed by TikTok and 'the discourse'. So we thought it would make sense that she is trying hard and that she follows the mishmash trends," Richardson tells W magazine. "She makes bad choices and is lost, doing a random job, so whenever we got her dressed, we tried to tell this story in the clothes, too."
"She talks so much about not wanting to be a part of the social media-verse, not wanting to be controlled by that," continues Richardson. "But the sad irony is, she is so deep in it, so controlled by it."
The flailing fashion fiasco felt by twentysomethings and their teenaged counterparts was the subtext of Gen Z movie Not Okay, released in July this year. Production shots that made their way online ahead of release were mocked for showcasing trends that had already cycled out in the months since: phone charms, argyle print skirt sets and yes, the e-Girl fringe.
However, it turned out the intentional wardrobe choices were a meta-commentary on fast fashion, influencer culture and following the pack when it comes to what we wear.
Down under, the fashion worn by young people at the moment is perhaps better represented in Netflix teen drama Heartbreak High, where the same colours, prints, styles and cultural references inform the wardrobe department but with more cohesion and coolness. An aspiration for Gen Z, rather than a questionable gaze down on them.
Even the chaotic colour vomit that the namesake protagonist wears in Emily in Paris is still hinged on high-end eclecticism, while the Instagram-defined ensembles worn in the Gossip Girl reboot spark ambition and yearning for a wardrobe that's out of reach for many.
The osmosis of aesthetics right now is a confusing mess — a sea of trends, viral products, throwbacks and homogeneity, where nobody really knows where or what they stand for. When it comes to self-expression through style, we don't know who we are anymore, and Portia represents that desperation to find out.