A Walk Through The Defining Moments Of Fashion
It is often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that artists are those who steal in broad daylight from the masters. Although cliched, looking at the runways of today, one can still spot traces that pay homage to very specific, game-changing instances in fashion’s long and volatile history. While many were in-today, out-tomorrow (think of the pouf skirt craze a la Christian Lacroix), others have endured and become part of the modern fashion vocabulary. These moments bear witness to the fact that many so-called trends aren’t seasonal, but cyclical, governed by the multitudes of (and, increasingly, by the converging and overlapping of) influences running through designers’ minds at a given point in time.
Manifest in a collection or a singular silhouette, they were not so much about the clothes but a new attitude. Just like the music, art and literature of a given period, the four examples that we have described here are a sign of their times — in each case almost like an armour for the woman of the day to stand out and stand up against subjugation.
Reeling from a second world war, and after years of shortages, fabric rationing and monotonous uniforms, Paris in 1947 was primed for a change. Forty-two-year-old designer Christian Dior had yet to make it big, and he presented his first collection with the simple intent to help women reclaim their femininity. ‘I wanted my dresses to be ‘constructed’, moulded on the curves of the female body whose contours they would stylise,’ he explained at the time. The audience watched 90 ensembles walk past, with dropped jaws; at last there was something to talk about, especially after such a dreary decade in French fashion.
With a tucked-in waist and emphasised bust, the Bar jacket was nothing short of revolutionary. It hugged its wearer’s curves and, when paired with an extravagant full skirt, added an elegant ‘swing’ to her step. Coupled with pronounced shoulders, the collection was aptly named the ‘figure eight’, signalling a new ideal for beauty.
While the name New Look happened entirely by accident (by an eavesdropping journalist who ran with the phrase), it stood for more than the clothes. It gave women the confidence to again embrace the lighter side of life, to flaunt their curves rather than hide them. It also signified that when one is tired of the prevailing trends, it takes just one bold move to shake things up.
Wearing the pants
Close on Dior’s heels was his protégé Yves Saint Laurent, whom the designer had named as his worthy successor. In 1966, in spite of the ‘second wave of feminism’ it was still a society where trousers were deemed inappropriate for women who were viewed as homemakers. So, Saint Laurent set out to prove that they really could wear the pants. With Le Smoking, he presented the first tuxedo-style suit for women. Oozing sex appeal, it subverted men’s fashion long before androgyny was even a thing, and became a symbol of power.
Designed as a racy alternative to the little black dress (another defining moment brought to us by Coco Chanel), Le Smoking comprised a tailored dinner jacket made in either black satin or grain de poudre wool, trousers with a satin side strip and ruffled white shirt. A black bow tie and satin cummerbund completes the look.
Bianca Jagger was famously married to Mick Jagger in her Le Smoking suit, and it continues to make a bold statement wherever it is worn; often a favourite on the red carpet. But initially, it wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. While critics showed a lukewarm response and thought Saint Laurent was trying too hard to be cool, it was banned from ‘respectable’ hotels and restaurants for being unsuitable formal attire. Thus, those who chose to defiantly sport the look, like French actor Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli and Lauren Bacall, declared themselves to be daring and decidedly feminist. Even today, the brand ensures that it is referenced or reinterpreted in each collection.
It’s important to mention that this wasn’t YSL’s sole game-changer — the brand was also responsible for breakthrough ideas such as the Mondrian dress, the see-through blouse and safari jacket.
In exactly the same year as Le Smoking, Spanish designer Paco Rabanne had his first show, ironically titled 12 Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials. Inspired by industrial machinery, his creations were made entirely of metal, wire, plastics, paper, cardboard and rubber — materials that had never been used in fashion before. The collection drew from his training as an architect, with ‘fabric’ made from Rhodoid plates joined together by metal rings and outfits created directly onto the models’ bodies. The chain-mail effect almost mimicked armour, except it appeared on the shortest miniskirts, that had been made so trendy by Mary Quant, another legend of the time.
The ’60s was a time of experimentation, and the innovative construction of Rabanne’s clothing reflected a futuristic aesthetic that was au courant in the decade of space travel. Unlike his contemporaries like Pierre Cardin, the designer blurred the line between fashion and sculpture; pushing the envelope in his choice of raw materials and unconventional production methods.
More than its design though, Rabanne’s collection represented the new fashion ideal of the time — a slender figure and clothing that emphasised the legs — and freedom for the female form. Shift dresses and minis were liberating after decades of tight waists and confining innerware. This was a period of free love and exploration.
Wrap and go
Women’s liberation was in full swing, and the ’70s woman wanted to be able to effortlessly transition her look from office by day to disco by night. This is where Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap dress came in, paired with unfussy mules or ankle-strap heels that work double duty.
Made from forgiving synthetic jersey fabric, the dress borrowed from American sportswear trends (pre-athleisure) in its wrap form and choice of material. Von Furstenberg reinterpreted it in bright, bold colours and myriad patterns. With a collared, deep V-neck, and long sleeves, it could survive a hectic day at work unrumpled, and complemented just about any figure. It made its wearer believe that she was ready for any occasion (with the right accessories). In the designer’s own words, ‘The wrap dress made women feel what they wanted to feel like…free and sexy…. It also fitted in with the sexual revolution: a woman who chose to could be out of it in less than a minute!’
Von Furstenberg’s own mantra, ‘Feel like a woman, wear a dress’, marked a shift from liberalisation’s image of a power-dresser to one that embraced her feminine side and used it to her advantage. Cybill Shepherd wore a red patterned wrap dress in Taxi Driver (1976); a perfect example of sexy, effortless style. But the truth was that its designer — a young mother building her own fashion empire in a male-dominated industry — was herself the strongest symbol of the new wave. Today, she stands for natural confidence and female strength, and has fought unwaveringly for diversity in the industry, trying to erase body-image misconceptions in fashion.
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