Gender assumptions reconsidered

Monday is International Women’s Day – fancy that. For once, in spite of its seasonal discontinuity, fashion and the outside world are on the same page. They are both thinking about women. Theoretically, at least.

Indeed, over the weekend in Paris, theory often seemed the one unifying principle behind most collections. Meditate on this. It was a relief to deal with more abstract themes of dress, after all the leading-up-to-the-Oscars red-carpet hoo-ha (though if you want to know about that, it will be covered on Tuesday). After all, to answer the question of how women want to dress you have to first answer the question of how women think of themselves. Which is pretty much a poser and gave rise, not surprisingly, to some rather different ideas, some of which were more resolved, some more challenging, than others.

Viktor & Rolf, for example, framed the issue neatly, using as a backdrop a black-and-white illustration of spanners and cogs and other building mechanisms, and using as a gimmick a model in an enormous tweed mega-shouldered cape, which turned out to be many layers of capes and coats and linings, which in turn became clothes for other models to wear, until the first model had been deconstructed down to her underthings – at which stage she was reconstructed via the outfits of other models.

The point – we all need to be stripped down to basics before we can start creating ourselves – was a valid one, and the visual was clever, but the issue was in how the designers then suggested their woman be remade: via lots of coats.

Nice though they were, with multiple anorak details, touches of fur and evening frills, it’s hard not to think a wardrobe, and a sartorial identity, needs something more.

It needs perhaps to begin with some real interior soul-searching, or at least that appeared to be the suggestion at Comme des Garçons, where designer Rei Kawakubo seamed and padded traditional suits to suggest the organs beneath, whether it was shoulder blades or kidneys on a jacket, or what looked like the swirl of the small intestine on a skirt.

Such articulated body parts were then followed by the same silhouette, but transformed by ovoid lumps held in transparent fabric, like eggs waiting to be born. Or a persona waiting to be hatched. What she becomes thereafter, of course, is up to the woman who wears it; Ms Kawakubo would not presume to impose. Rather, her clothes force you to ask the question of yourself, just as what can seem like jokes at Martin Margiela – trousers that turn to reveal they are actually only stockings at the back, waists emphasised through an external hoop encircling the body, instead of a belt cinching it tight – actually make you reconsider assumptions about male and female dress, and received role play.

Other designers were more concrete in their speculation about the state of being female. Indeed, consensus seemed to centre, for the moment, on the idea that women have battles to face and values to uphold (a host of figures, from Hillary Clinton to Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron, would agree). There was a notable amount of military referencing on the runway, though rarely in any “soldier on, young woman!” way. Luckily, it was more complicated, and occasionally more elegiac, than that.

So at Haider Ackermann, a road-warrior toughness pervaded exactingly cut leather jackets that undulated round the face and down the front, and bias skirts that hung long on one side but were built to stride.

At Ann Demeulemeester, men’s wide-legged wool trousers appeared under cropped jackets that might be bound in boleros of ropes, or sprout oil-black coq feathers like an Amazon queen. And at Lanvin, designer Alber Elbaz took tribalism to a very personal, structural level, both literally and aesthetically. Simple day dresses in efficient, eye-catching lines, broad-shouldered and slim-hipped, became increasingly dark and elaborate, sprouting first twists and then pleats and asymmetric arms and dressmaking details that demanded a second glance and then encrustations of ostrich and beading and metal, for a visual knockout punch. This woman stalks the city streets and takes no prisoners.

Such was one take on the subject, anyway; another was on view at Junya Watanabe, where the palette may have derived from the army, with colours shading from olive green to navy to khaki to camouflage. But the mood was softer, and more meditative, thanks to the transformative properties of classical silhouettes. Utilitarian shades came in 1950s dresses with full skirts and small bodices, Edwardian gathered gowns, and 1920s slimlines, ultimately suggesting a physical representation of grace under pressure.

Interestingly, Yohji Yamamoto was also playing with similar tropes (the military dress, the mid-century skirt) though he began at the beginning, with schoolgirl pleated quasi-uniforms, here oversize and drooping on one side or cropped short. Then came athletic knits, perhaps tank-shaped and ankle length, with pockets by the calf, as though Alice had eaten the cake and shrunk, so that her shirt turned into a dress.

There were strapless prom dresses made from overcoats, and men’s tailoring on top of sexually charged mesh, and in the end there was love, in the shape of a floor-length navy coat – nun-plain from the front, but festooned with two profiles drawn in curving seams, leaning into a kiss, on the back.

It was a journey that suggested no one should give up on the idea of a happy ending – when it comes to clothes, as when it comes to gender politics.

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