Fashion gets covered up

Actresses Jessica Biel (left) in Kaufmanfranco and Isabelle Huppert (right) in Armani Prive at February's Oscars ceremony in California.
Actresses Jessica Biel (left) in Kaufmanfranco and Isabelle Huppert (right) in Armani Prive at February's Oscars ceremony in California. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • It is a truism of the history of dress that decade- defining looks generally do not congeal until quite late in the period they eventually come to represent.

The miniskirts and Crayola colours of the 1960s, the power shoulders of the 1980s and the minimalism of the 1990s all reached critical mass well into the midpoint of those eras, when whatever had been bubbling up in wardrobes and on sidewalks found its reflection in the wider world.

It is now that stage in the 2010s. The tectonic plates of fashion have shifted.

Look around. What do you see?

During the recent round of fashion shows, suits - and sleeves and long skirts - dominated.

"Women who once bought strapless dresses with a little skirt are now buying evening gowns with sleeves and high necks," said Ms Claire Distenfeld, owner of Fivestory, a destination boutique on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

"Four seasons ago, we couldn't sell a blouse and now everyone wants a blouse.

"Young women who used to come in and buy Balmain's non-existent dresses are leaving with knee-length skirts with a sweater or blouse by Emilia Wickstead."

And speaking of Balmain - even that label offered long knits, long sleeves and long crocodile skins among the short-'n'-fringed styles in its last collection.

Look to the red carpet.

There was actress Ruth Negga owning the last awards season in a series of generously sleeved frocks and then showing up at the Oscars almost entirely covered in red Valentino - long sleeves, high neck, long skirt - and making pretty much every top 10 best-dressed list of the night.

Ditto actresses Jessica Biel (in long-sleeved, high-necked, floor- length gold Kaufmanfranco) and Isabelle Huppert (in long-sleeved, crew-necked, floor-length white Armani Prive).

"It's a macro trend," said Ms Ghizlan Guenez, founder of The Modist, a new fashion site.

Which is to say, a trend that goes beyond fashion.

But what exactly is it? The beginning of a new age of female "pluri- empowerment" (as trend forecaster Iza Dezon told CNN), as expressed through the kind of dress that prioritises the individual and her needs over the cliches of female role play.

Arguably, it began, as these things do, at least three years ago.

The New York Times began chronicling young women on the streets of Brooklyn layering clothes in creative ways that shielded or swaddled their bodies back in 2015.

But it is only now reaching critical mass, thanks to a convergence of social, political and cultural factors as reflected in clothing.

Consider it this way: In 2014, singer Rihanna accepted the Fashion Icon Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in a sheer rhinestone-spangled scrim of a dress by Adam Selman.

In November, she accepted the Shoe of the Year award at the Footwear News Achievement Awards in a long black Vetements X Juicy Couture velvet skirt, a long-sleeved shirt draped at the waist and long gloves, with almost no skin showing at all.

In 2015, singer Beyonce channelled Venus on the half shell in sheer Givenchy at the Met Gala, with only bits of strategically placed floral embroidery to keep her from arrest.

This year, the Met Gala celebrates a designer - Rei Kawakubo - whose last show encased the female body in oversize armless carapaces that swallowed the Betty Boop and Botero silhouettes whole.

"We live in an age of reality TV and transparency where everything is out there," said Ms Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the innovation group at J. Walter Thompson.

She added that the move to dress in the opposite direction was in some ways "a reaction to that - almost the anti-Kardashianisation".

It is a sign of the times, though one with a touch of irony, that for Mrs Melania Trump's official portrait, the First Lady chose a black tuxedo jacket complete with black tie at the neck, a formal, almost military and very covered-up look - as was the Ralph Lauren dress- and-bolero outfit she chose for the inauguration of her husband, United States President Donald Trump, with its high neck and matching gloves.

Perhaps because, as Ms Greene said, one of the hallmarks of these clothes is that to a certain extent, they "reject the strictures of the male gaze".

"They are not about what men want any more," she continued, "but about what women want."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2017, with the headline 'Fashion gets covered up'. Print Edition | Subscribe