The White Lotus’s take on Gen Z style is irritating people


Portia, played by Haley Lu Richardson, flirts with Jack (Leo Woodall) in ‘The White Lotus’ season two © HBO

The first time we meet Portia, the twenty-something personal assistant of American heiress Tanya McQuoid-Hunt (Jennifer Coolidge) in the second season of The White Lotus, she is on a boat bound to Taormina, Sicily. Rather than being outside with Tanya, soaking up the sun and the landscape, Portia is sitting inside, unhappily squeezed between her boss’s suitcases. She is wearing a chunky knitted vest with a white swan design paired with frayed denim shorts, chunky white sandals with straps, and a mini crochet backpack.

It’s a fusion of Gen Z trends, but Portia doesn’t look cool. Instead, she radiates discomfort and uneasiness. 

In the following episodes Portia, played by Haley Lu Richardson, dabbles in many other fashion trends, often creating incongruous pairings. She layers a striped knit bolero over a zebra bikini top; teams baggy green trousers with a giant vintage Tommy Hilfiger polo knotted at the waist and a wonky crochet hat; and pairs a yellow evening dress with white Nike Air Force 1‘07. Her style is a mix-and-match of references, styles, colours and prints, many of them Y2K inspired, that do not always flatter. More than once she wears items from House of Sunny and Crap Eyewear, very popular and recognisable labels among Gen Z.

A young woman sits on a sun lounger while speaking into her mobile phone
Portia wears a House of Sunny vest while talking on the phone near the hotel pool © Fabio Lovino/HBO

“Portia from White Lotus dresses like she exclusively wears things that are advertised to her on Instagram,” wrote one user on Twitter, where discussions over the character and her style are frequent. “Portia on the white lotus dresses like an urban outfitters clearance section,” tweeted another. “Portia is so basic, it physically hurts me on a cellular level,” wrote a third.

Why are Portia’s clothes so irritating? Initially, I assumed a costume designer considerably older than her had tried too hard to manifest what a stereotypical Gen-Zer would dress like. But as more episodes went by, her style started to make more sense, if not aesthetically at least conceptually. It reflects a freer way of understanding dressing that is popular with her generation, which focuses less on “good taste”, and more on expression, identity and mood.

An older and a younger woman stand together in a large room
Tanya McQuoid-Hunt (Jennifer Coolidge) and Portia in one of her typical looks © HBO

A colleague’s stepdaughter, Lilibelle, who is 16, sums it up: “What is style anyway? It’s really subjective, so I think all the debates on Twitter about Portia’s outfits are kind of useless.”

The White Lotus costume designer Alex Bovaird, 44, based Portia’s style on what people of that generation wear in California, in big cities around the world and online. “People have started dressing very individually and eccentrically, compared with how young people were dressing 10 years ago,” she tells me on Zoom. “It wasn’t, ‘let’s try to make her wear ugly clothes’; that wasn’t the point. Yes, she looks good, and yes, she looks bad, but it’s how everyone is dressing, a big hodgepodge of incoherent things and different moods.”

Portia’s approach to dressing makes her more relatable than Daphne and Harper, the wives of college friends Cameron and Ethan, whose perfection masks their own unhappiness, or Lucia, a local sex worker, with her rotation of revealing outfits and sparkling mini-dresses. Daphne and Harper dress to present a finely edited image of themselves and their lives, and Lucia dresses to attract the attention she wants and needs. Meanwhile Portia allows herself to dress as she feels, slouchy when she is depressed or not looking for attention; sexier when she wants to flirt; comfortable when she is just fine.

A young woman sits on a stone step and reads her phone
Portia’s eclectic style is influenced by what she sees online and how she think she should be dressing © HBO

But tension remains because Portia, as many of her generation, is also constantly online, barraged by a stream of trends, influences and pressures that are hard to ignore. 

“She spends too much time on TikTok, she is ruled by the discourse and what she should be thinking,” says Bovaird. “She is following the zeitgeist and the trends, but also she is a bit of a mess, so she doesn’t always quite hit the mark.”

As with her style choices, Portia’s character has been lambasted. She has been described as insufferable, self-involved, passive and possibly “the real villain of The White Lotus”, a TV show where every character is a villain. It’s difficult at times to sympathise with Portia: she is being paid to spend time in a luxurious resort in Sicily with very little actual work to do, but she is still dissatisfied with her life and feels sorry for herself. Her sadness is irritating. It brings viewers to ask why can’t she just shut up and pretend to enjoy the sun like everyone else. That she doesn’t is part of her relatability.

“She vocalises her disappointment in not being able to enjoy things which is felt by a lot of our generation,” says 24-year-old Aidyn Guilbert, an American social media executive who spoke to me by phone. “We were locked inside for basically two years in a time when we came out of school and [were supposed to] find our passions. Instead we are seeing all of these things reflected to us through social media, but we don’t have any of it. All of these things feel incredibly out of reach.”

A young woman in a multi-coloured dress sitting at a dining table in a restaurant
Portia dressed up and upset at dinner © Fabio Lovino/HBO

On the third episode, Portia is having breakfast on a balcony overlooking the Ionian Sea with Albie, a potential love interest she met at the resort. She is wearing a Stüssy workwear plaid shirt that is possibly more out of place than her swan vest and she is visibly unhappy. “I’m just at a weird place. I’ve been feeling so depressed at home. And I just thought I’d come here and feel something,” she says. “Is everything boring? I just feel like there must’ve been a time when the world had more. Like mystery, or something. And now you come somewhere like this, and it’s beautiful. And you take a picture and then you realise that everybody’s taken that exact same picture from that exact same spot and you just made some redundant content for stupid Instagram.”

It’s a privileged complaint, but just like Portia’s style, it’s realistic. I felt for Portia and her inability to filter her discontent and find the relief she is so desperately looking for.

“She is the only character who isn’t pretending to be happy,” says Guilbert. “Instead of discoursing about the way she dresses, we should celebrate that she is voicing her frustrations.”

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