Vain trifles as they seem, clothes… change our view of the world and the world’s view of us,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her 1928 masterpiece, Orlando. Equally true, as discovered in 2020, is that when our view of the world changes, so do our clothes. Even the most die-hard style fans have dressed a little differently over the past six months. While we were confined to the home, with a limited-to-zero public stage on which to display ourselves, our clothing became a little less exuberant, a little more practical, a little more comfortable.
But as we tentatively step out into a different world and a new fashion season, what are we going to wear? What does dressing up look like now? The autumn/winter ’20 collections were shown at the beginning of the growing crisis and designed well before that, with no one knowing what was to come, nor that “fashion” would lie near-dormant for six months. Yet the best collections of the new season somehow predicted a mood that feels right for now. While the doomy black dress, the cinched waist, the big fuzzy coat (very Woolf-ish), the opera skirt and yards of swinging fringing are the features of so many designer collections, this is a season less about trends and more about dressing up in something considered, idiosyncratic and essentially self-styled. It’s about wearing individual pieces in possession of their own intelligence and artistry.
“We are seeing a growing interest in designers whose collections are less trend-led and more based on the designer’s own personal relationship with fashion,” says Jeannie Lee, head of womenswear at Selfridges. “Women want to feel as if they are buying a piece that is beautifully designed and carefully considered.”
At some point in the future we might need to hold a metaphorical burning of our Covid sweatpants, but in a way Miuccia Prada was already on to this when she presented her autumn collection back in February: fringed and slashed long skirts, belted waists and tailoring worn with ties were a proposal for an atypical type of femininity. In the notes for the show, she described the kinetic nature of those long fringes and car-wash skirts as a reference to athleticism. Sportswear, she pointed out, is the “clothing of the everyday” and what she offered was “the everyday, corrupted by glamour”. An anti-athleisure movement, in so many other words.
How badly we now need that glamour corruption. It may come in the form of the jet beads or crystal threads swinging from the shoulders, as advocated by her brand. Or it might be the extraordinary exaggerated pagoda shoulders at Balenciaga’s apocalyptic-themed show – perfect, as one reviewer pointed out, for ensuring social distance. Or the oversized pussy bow blouses – in golden yellow, red-and-black check and candy pink – worn under ’80s-style blazers with equally oversized peak lapels and skin-tight leggings at Saint Laurent. The looks were certainly classically bourgeois, but with a hyperbolic twist.
It seems that dressing up now, when the occasions for which we might need to do so are still limited, warrants something special. For his autumn/winter Loewe show, creative director Jonathan Anderson also seemed to have anticipated this, with a kind of surrealist ready-to-wear, full of exaggerated-shaped dresses with inflated sleeves, raised necklines and sculptural collars. One sober grey dress coat fastened at the front with rows of nondescript silver buttons, while the skirt cascaded to the ankles in dramatic frayed tiers. He christened the collection as “couture jolly-ness”, another mood medicine you didn’t know you were thirsting for.
Trying to judge whether people are ready to leave their homes and go out, fashion buyers at retail stores have been drawn to pieces that will work in multiple environments. “The general mood is definitely wanting to be more relaxed, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t want to make an effort,” says Liane Wiggins, head of womenswear buying at MatchesFashion. “I think customers are looking for pieces that make them feel more pulled together and special – they don’t just want to be in loungewear 24/7.”
The doomy black dress, then, mid-length or longer, is something that might fit the bill. A style by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen’s autumn/winter show feels like a new take on John Singer Sargent’s Madame X dress. Sculptural with a deep sweetheart neckline and a swallow tail, it is made in heavy black worsted flannel, a cloth made by weavers John Foster in Yorkshire. “The woman is courageous, grounded, bold: heroic,” Burton said of the collection. “There is a sense of protection in the clothes, of safety and comfort.” That’s a sentiment that feels particularly apt for re-emerging into a shaky world.
Wiggins points to other similarly noir-ish dresses – the dramatic, priestly volume of Balenciaga; the ’40s-style diamanté-collared movie star of a dress from Christopher Kane; the romantically titled Siren Bleeding Heart frock by New York-based label Duncan, with its scooped‑out neckline; and Emilia Wickstead’s pleather waisted-dress for autumn/winter ’20.
This look-at-me mode of dressing could be emblematic of Christian Dior’s New Look – the ultra-feminine silhouette he presented in 1947 following years of war-time rationing. The tightly cinched waist, full skirt and decadent fabrication marked a turning point in women’s wardrobes and heralded an unexpected return to extravagance and glamour after a period of subdued functionality and Make Do and Mend.
What we seem to need now are clothes that spark conversation. Pieces that are daring in cut or texture or design. Clothes have been quiet for so long – now they are demanding their own point of view.
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