Late one night, a friend trying to sell me on the benefits of mindfulness sends me a text—apparently, an acquaintance of hers recently lost 170 pounds and gained a promotion, a transformation he credits to repeating a mantra 10 times every morning in the mirror. I don’t believe her, but of course I want to know the mantra, and once she tells me, I can’t stop thinking about it: “Look at me.”
It’s been a while since I commanded anyone to look at me. Once, getting dressed was something I did to stand out, and no print was too chaotic, no weird sartorial stone went unturned. There was a time, outside the Opening Ceremony show, when a street-style photographer took a picture of me wearing a Mondrian-print overcoat and spray-painted hot-pink creepers—less in the spirit of celebrating personal style and more, I’m convinced, as National Geographic–style documentation. Lately, though, I just hope that I can get through the day while escaping everyone’s notice. My lack of enthusiasm for personal exhibition might be age- and weight gain–based, but it has dovetailed nicely with the dawn of athleisure (okay, mainstream athleisure—I was hip to Prada Sport when Gigi Hadid was still an embryo) and a kind of minimalist, id-suppressing style that has taken on global omnipresence. Casual fashion has assumed the kind of nonspecific specificity that the writer Kyle Chayka, lamenting the growing sameness of modern interiors on the tech/culture site The Verge, recently dubbed AirSpace. Identical design signifiers, Chayka noted, can be spotted everywhere from Airbnbs to start-up offices and cafés worldwide. (Swap blond wood for white sneakers and bare Edison bulbs for sleek bucket bags, and you get the picture.) Meanwhile, I’ve just emerged, after three years, from a job spent working from home much of the time, my only accessory my laptop and my rare outings spent in not-real pants, into a shared workspace—you know, an office. It’s an unusual set of specifics, but I’m in step with many people of my generation here: Trying to stand out feels as cheesy as peacocking aimlessly around Fashion Week.
And so I embarked upon the fall 2017 show schedule swaddled in a large and nondescript coat that might be called the opposite of a conversation piece (a conversation ender?), fully prepared to see my anti-peacock tendencies validated. What I found, instead, were runway collections that lurched between two poles, neither of them exactly unassuming: either unabashedly feminine, ornate glamour, à la the ’80s socialites dubbed the Nouvelle Society, or shows tinged with the hue and cry of punk-influenced protest. There was no camouflage to be had here. Instead, there were double-wide, steroidal ball gowns at Balenciaga (an unexpected move from the ultimate fashion rebel, Demna Gvasalia); elaborate fur skirts at Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim’s maiden outing for Oscar de la Renta; and lush florals, bows, plus that ultimate ’80s signifier, the headband, at Altuzarra. On the other hand, at Versace, admittedly never an outfitter of wallflowers, we saw sheer tops proclaiming “Courage,” and Missoni put every model in a knit pussyhat. Sashes versus slashed tees; Sloane Rangers or riot grrrls: The last time we witnessed such stark contrasts in a single season, we were mired in the 1980s. The one thing that didn’t seem to be on offer was a middle ground.
For someone clinging to a comfort zone, it was like taking a chic ice bath. Not that I live my life by runway diktats, but the sheer self-display going on made me realize that my dream of everyone on earth ending up in identical loose jumpsuits was not coming true anytime soon. (But we would have been so comfortable!) When I saw prim-but-cool Brock Collection’s puff-sleeve dresses, clothes that earn the term “confections,” my immediate point of reference was the beautiful, bored debutantes in Whit Stillman’s vaguely ’80s Metropolitan—even though the married codesigners Laura Vassar Brock and Kristopher Brock later tell me they’ve never seen the movie. Their inspiration, Vassar Brock says, was precious moments in everyday life, “like giving your child a bath, or going out for dinner with your husband in a cocktail dress.” Making the everyday formal is a tradition for the couple, who live in Cali- casual mecca Newport Beach, California, but still make a point of dressing for dinner. Perhaps it’s genetic: Vassar Brock tells me that her mother wears Alaïa shoes to water the lawn. Notes New York–based Elizabeth Kennedy, who has begun making a name for herself as a young eveningwear designer and who, for fall, showed a collection inspired by exotic birds and fit for socialites of a feather, “We’re seeing this spike in femininity because for so long women were dressing very minimal, very masculine. I just think people miss that.”
While the Brocks and Kennedy operate at the high end, a similar spirit can be seen in high-street brands: The ribbon-strewn Regency sleeves and off-the-shoulder necklines that have predominated of late provide an antidote to the omnipresent T-shirt uniform. (When I call fashion historian Valerie Steele to get some context about why fashion might now be moving from sameness to singularity so quickly—is it something in the fraught political climate? An echo of Marie Antoinette? The undoing of feminist fashion?—she reminds me that sometimes, it’s just about novelty, too. Leave it to a professional contextualizer to remind you that, in the words of Ms. Britney Spears, it’s not that deep. “If it’s anything at all,” Steele says, “it’s ‘Big sleeves! We haven’t seen those for a while.’”)
Far from this Georgiana of Devonshire–meets–Georgette Mosbacher aesthetic were the statement-laden runways of Missoni, Prabal Gurung, Public School, and London- based Ashish Gupta. His Ashish show, which often features a burst of sparkle, had a more somber (if still glittery) tenor this season, with The Wizard of Oz as a starting point. In a sense, it was a homecoming—the journey Emerald City–ward was also the theme of his 2000 graduation collection at Central Saint Martins—but that had been an apolitical show, while this was openly provocative. His yellow brick runway played host to sequined shirts emblazoned with “Nasty Woman” and “Stay Woke,” pointedly recalling recent protest slogans. Post-Brexit and post-Trump, he tells me, he was pondering how to get his message across when he thought of one of his biggest heroes, the British provocateur and master of the blunt slogan Katharine Hamnett. “It’s all very well doing high fashion, but you’re preaching to the converted,” he says. “T-shirts have so much visibility, and everyone wears them. It’s the best canvas for a slogan.” Perhaps the biggest headline-maker for the India-born designer has been the “Immigrant” T-shirt he wore to take his bow last season. “I had not thought about selling that,” he admits; he wore it because “I wanted people to know that I am actually an immigrant, running a business, who has a show.” The response was swift: Strangers sent him their immigration stories on Instagram, and he put the shirt into production.
Gupta was working in the tradition of Hamnett, but also of Vivienne Westwood, who showed what British rebellion is all about with her fall collection—riotous, Pierrot- like ruffles for both men and women and, in a nod to her origins, sweaters proclaiming “Punk.” Westwood tells me she started from a place of despair, going back to Aldous Huxley’s essays. (“He considered nonstop distraction the greatest evil. And that’s what the news is all the time.”) Once, she tells me, railing against the system was her entire raison d’être. “Anybody who wasn’t an activist, who wasn’t in opposition, was kind of my enemy. But I stopped the idea of kicking against the wall because I realized that punks had been pretty ineffective people. They just wanted to jump around and shout out, but they didn’t really know what to do. So I thought, subversion is only in ideas.” She drew on Huxley’s thinking to turn out a joyous, defiant collection that was the opposite of distraction. It felt primal: “A dance of death, like it’s the last carnival on earth somehow. But nevertheless, I gave it an optimism, because we got all these clowns and dancers and acrobats to take part in it.” While not as explicitly activist as her punk-era shirts (which read, for instance, “Destroy” and “Only Anarchists Are Pretty”), Westwood captured the defiance and jubilation of protest.
Traditionally, these two styles of dressing have been seen as diametrically opposed—unenlightened social butterflies versus politicized punks. In 1991, Susan Faludi wrote about a Christian Lacroix fashion show in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, at which the audience was treated to “three layers of bustles,” “twenty pounds of crinoline and taffeta,” and “roses the size of cabbage heads.” She dubbed the look High Femininity and linked it to the rollback of women’s rights that was going on at the time: “In every backlash, the fashion industry has produced punitively restrictive clothing,” she wrote.
But when I speak to one of the leading lights of the Nouvelle Society era, Carolyne Roehm, she has a different take. Roehm and her set, who lived big and dressed even bigger in the ’80s, were nicknamed “social cyclones” by WWD for their many gala appearances. But only the women came in for chiding in the pages of society columns, scolded for, essentially, using fashion to draw attention to themselves. “Men aren’t in the eye of the camera. Who wants to look at a dinner jacket and a pair of pants when you can look at a crazy dress, or an extravagant dress, or a beautiful one?” she says. “In the bird world, the men wear the feathers and the color, and in the human one it’s the opposite, so it makes for a better photograph. There’s always been this element in societies where there’s a voyeuristic type of thing of wanting to see what people do, but there’s this flip slide that wants to put them down for it.” For Roehm, her pounds of taffeta weren’t self-imprisonment; they were self-expression, just as much a statement about her place in the world—albeit an extremely privileged one—as a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt might be. Both command you to look, and there’s a certain power in simply taking up space in the world—and refusing to let anyone look away. Now, remind me to get that Mondrian-print coat out of storage.