How do designers represent women at a time when ongoing injustices against them have reached fever pitch? Paul McLauchlan explores the catwalk in the #MeToo era.
The day before Paris Fashion Week began at the end of February, a jury in New York convicted film producer Harvey Weinstein of felony sex crime and rape.
The next day at the Christian Dior show, a flickering sign in neon green reading ‘consent’ was displayed as the guest arrived at the show space.
Since 2017, the fashion industry has been grappling with its purpose amidst allegations against men in power, as they emerged from the woodwork of the film, music, and fashion industries louder than ever before.
How do designers represent women at a time when ongoing injustices against them have finally reached a fever pitch?
With the rise of movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, hypersexualisation and objectification — tactics of fashion past — were by and large replaced with more mindful approaches to dressing.
Things went from a glamour-filled era to clothes that acted as a balm to the tumult of the times.
Moreover, in the 2010s, from the glut of content on Instagram to the proliferation of the number of designers and information at our disposal, it became abundantly apparent that there is no one woman in the minds of fashion designers.
On the autumn/winter 2020 runways which concluded recently, there were no conclusions.
Some thought about sustainability, others thought about sex, some thought about the 1920s, others thought about fringe, the colour silver and big shoulders.
From the big thinkers to the simple propositions, in all her glory and iterations, one had to ask — did we just catch a glimpse of the modern woman? Again, again, and again and again.
While fashion designers can often paint depictions of an ‘elusive’ woman, one unfamiliar to most in the audience, with lofty concepts and an unreachable mien, the upcoming autumn/winter 2020 season designed a wardrobe that was as varied as women’s lives are today.
From the street to the office — via a pitstop in the bedroom — and an evening gala, today’s fashion is very much about every woman in the room.
“I was thinking about the tension between refinement and rebellion,” said Victoria Beckham at her London Fashion Week catwalk show in February.
“I was inspired by different ideas of women — different characters, different moments, and different attitudes — but with no restrictions. The overriding sentiment that we don’t have to follow the rules.
“We can follow our instincts, be spirited.”
Intentional or not, London designers with their (mostly) limited budgets and fearless creativity collectively encapsulated something about women today.
Fashion for everyone is as elusive a concept as the so-called ‘woman’ central to designers’ mood boards.
Yet, unfurling on these runways, here she was.
And her sister. And her best friend, and girlfriend. And her aunt. And her mother. The many faces of femininity, refracted in every shape and form possible, were everywhere.
How does one shop for the multiplicities of women’s wardrobe needs? Natalie Kingham, fashion & buying director at MATCHESFASHION.com devises a rubric to encompass the many faces of femininity.
“Approaching each season we look to our six muses; The Fashion Pioneer, The Warrior, The Free Spirit, The Curator, The Romantic, and The Purist,” she said.
You might find The Purist in Beckham’s designs, where the so-called woman wears feminine skirt-suits with abbreviated hemlines, heritage checks in manipulated patterns, streamlined dresses in dark colours cut with a room for swishy elegance, and trousers cropped above the ankle.
Simple but effective, her vision was convincing. Midi-lengths are as commonplace as keyboards in offices but those shorter lengths were, though hardly an emancipating concept, a refreshing departure from the length that defined the 2010s.
She’s not the only one with smartness and modesty in mind.
Could Roksanda’s modernist wardrobe fantasy of tactile colour-blocked concoctions and modular tailoring, intercut with evening looks inspired by the abstract expressionist woman artist Lee Krasner, in fluoro shades or more rich hues like terracotta and sage, be the modern woman?
Or was it the more playful but nonetheless sophisticated one we saw at Emilia Wickstead, a designer popular amongst Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle.
Inspired by Irish-American art director Cedric Gibbons’s fondness for Art Deco and Art Moderne, it manifested itself in ‘dancing length’ dresses in lowered necklines, jumpsuits with sculptural drapery, and amplified sleeves atop streamlined silhouettes.
This woman evokes a century-old properness, but somehow felt right for today.
Was the answer to contemporary femininity in the revisionist explorations of historical fashion? 100 years later, the 1920s were on full display in the London collections. Perhaps borrowing from the past is the way forward, building on pre-existing codes to shift the narrative of women’s fashion and their wardrobe tastes forward.
The beautiful black and white photography of Cecil Beaton informed Erdem’s procession of 1920s-leaning dames.
Their silver frocks drip with pearls, their necks adorned with even more pearls. Their dresses decorated like cakes, as if frosted with lace.
Their trousers are menswear-inspired and roomy, but spotted with pearls. Their coats provide a practical, protective shell, but fashionably, in check patterns, neon quilting, geometric prints in green and pink.
“Femininity for us is feeling strong in your body and being confident of your uniqueness,” said Charlotte de Geyter, co-founder of Belgian label Bernadette (named after her mother and fellow co-founder), available at Brown Thomas.
Prized for its ultra-feminine, glamourous appeal, with body-framing couture silhouettes adapted for the modern woman, de Geyter said: “We are proud of our timeless femininity and want to enhance this through our feminine cuts, but always remain comfortable. There needs to remain an ease to our pieces so she can throw it on and leave the house for her our next appointment in an instant.”
While some are comfortable with noble ideas of sophisticated women who like to dress up, they are juxtaposed with ideas around the body, of sensuality and sexuality, even sex.
In the wake of #MeToo, many designers were sceptical to uphold the age-old adage of ‘sex sells’. Can sex sell in an era where the conversation around it is defined by injustice and crime?
The answer is yes — when the subject matter is handled carefully.
On the catwalks, there was plenty of suggestive content. Richard Quinn, wonderboy based in South London, with Irish parents, threw blown-out floral dresses into the mix as if the woman was plucked from the gardens of Buckingham Palace.
But they were worn with latex bodysuits, often covering the model’s faces. A mischievous move.
Christopher Kane thought about temptation too.
His story, literally, could be traced back to the beginning of time. He was thinking about the ‘love triangle’ between Adam, Eve, and the serpent.
From clear crystal mesh playing with modest, cheeky cutouts and lingerie- inspired lace detailing hither and thither, some clothes delight in wearing provocation firmly on your sleeve.
Kinky prerogatives were also in mind at new label Charlotte Knowles, fronted by recent graduates Charlotte Knowles and Alexandre Arsenault.
Inspired by lingerie, their trussed-up, corseted models have a rebellious 90s attitude and a confident sexiness that was almost forgotten about in the wake of #MeToo.
For every perverse showing, there was a tailored suit, a modest jumpsuit, or parachute-style coat in the mix. In essence, there is no one woman.
“What is exciting about the past few seasons is that we can see the dress code rules have changed, and there is more flexibility and room to style in different ways,” said Kingham.
“For example The Curator is wearing chunky boots with a tulle Molly Goddard dress and The Warrior has taken a more empowered approach to power dressing with the likes of new brand DUNCAN injecting traditional tailoring with punk- inspired and feminine accents.
“We’ve also seen our more Romantic customer style an elegant dress with a pair of flats for a black-tie event.”
The conclusion? There is none. For once, there is something for everyone in the audience, a testament to the heartfelt commitment contemporary designers have to tend to the wardrobe needs of modern women.
These ideas will, by and large, filter down to the high street in months to come, while the more challenging silhouettes might take years.
Nevertheless, the fashion of tomorrow is your choice. A revolutionary concept for women.