Fashion’s Betsey Johnson, the Queen of Kitsch, Turns 80

As the designer celebrates her birthday, her brand has captivated a new generation eager to embrace their femininity in weird and wonderful ways.

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Betsey Johnson’s Spring 2006 fashion show. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images (Getty Images)

Something tells me we’re stuck in a time warp. You can buy velour tracksuits with “JUICY” spelled in crystals across the ass at Urban Outfitters. Girly adventure film Josie and the Pussycats is enjoying a feminist redemption arc. TikTok users are discovering the joy that is Costco “couture.” But nothing spells the comeback of kitsch with more certitude than a Betsey Johnson brand revival, just in time for the eclectic designer’s 80th birthday.

On Tuesday evening, fashion editors, influencers, and celebs like Euphoria’s Chloe Cherry gathered at what appeared to be a trailer park-themed soiree to celebrate the iconic purveyor of “all things girly and punk.” Wearing her signature gothic spider-corseted dress with over-the-elbow opera gloves to match, Johnson was flanked by a giant pink fridge, a stack of old televisions, drag queens, and yard flamingos. If you can envision a mash-up of Elvira, Barbie, and Piper Perabo in Coyote Ugly complete with a sequined dreidel purse as an accessory, then you’ve got a handle on the Queen of Kitsch’s aesthetic.

For me, this revival is personal. I wore a black and pink tulle Betsey Johnson dress to my senior year homecoming, complete with a sweetheart top and a giant pink bow (it screamed, “I’M A GIRL, BITE ME”). I had spotted it in a Betsey store at my local mall, and felt for the first time that a designer understood me: a wannabe punk rock glamazon with a dash of the hyper-femme. I felt inexplicably cool. A little over a year later, in 2012, the brand filed for bankruptcy, dismissed hundreds of employees, and closed all of its stores.

Now, a decade later, Betsey Johnson and all of her neon extensions have cartwheeled back into relevancy. Teen idol Olivia Rodrigo has been spotted in vintage Betsey on several occasions. Bimboism and Barbiecore both contain echoes—if not carbon copies—of Johnson’s signature silhouette: bra straps out, push-up bras on, bright pink corsets over everything. Worn slips and dresses are all over resale sites like Depop and ThredUp.

But a certain cultural moment has cleared the way for her comeback. Betsey Johnson, a designer who cartwheeled into the splits at the end of every runway, has always stood for ironic excess, over-the-top gaudiness, and a loud and eccentric vision of femininity. It’s telling, then, that young women have made their way back to her in the lead-up to a recession and in a post-Roe world, in which girliness isn’t just a style or an aesthetic to be mocked but a statement of political power. As Veronique Hyland writes in Elle of the return of bubblegum pink and pronounced cleavage, “It seems that many of us are retreating into the armor of a stereotype as a form of protection: You want lockstep hyper-femininity? We’ll do you one better.”

I’m welcoming Betsey’s 80th birthday collection—and her return to the zeitgeist—with open arms. In her honor, let’s take a gander through some of her most iconic looks and moments.

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