Not long ago, I passed a chic maternity boutique followed, a door later, by a chic non-maternity boutique, only to notice that the clothing displayed in the windows of each was nearly identical. Suddenly, I realized that the voluminous frocks so ubiquitous of late have lost, as it were, all sense of proportion. The A-line dress, it might be said, has become the A-frame housedress.
For the last few seasons, women’s clothing has been in flight from women’s bodies. The tent, the trapeze, the bubble, the baby doll—call these dresses what you will, the dominant shape (if that word is justified) has been one that renders a woman shapeless. Such styles deliberately obscure traditionally eroticized parts of the body, the breasts and hips and waist, managing the bizarre (and, let’s face it, somewhat disturbing) feat of making women appear at once infantile and pregnant. In a sea of nightgowns, art-class smocks, maternity blouses, and Mrs. Roper–style muumuus, we are left with only arms and legs and—according to the New York Times “Styles” section, anyway—the very naughty clavicle. Many women, in some desperate but understandable bid to feel sexy, have taken to wearing their dresses alarmingly short.
But those baffled by volume, those bored by it, those heterosexual and male, should take heart. This fall, women’s clothing and the female body once again get intimate. I’m not talking about the return of eighties-era bodysuits, or tight mohair sweaters with plunging décolletage. Still, silhouettes will be longer, slimmer; clothing will be more structured. Suits, jackets, and trousers have ousted the dress. Waists are visible. Breasts, if not exactly showcased, are at least detectable. Shoulders, absent for some time now, are once again important. Gone is the soft and round and globular (and the layers, ruffles, and Empire waists that often played accompaniment) in favor of the hard-edged and angular. At last, women will ditch the diapers of the baby-doll dress in favor of a sharper, slicker aesthetic.
Of course, the history of fashion is the story of its on-again, off-again romance with the female figure. In 1947, the exaggerated femininity of Christian Dior’s New Look, with its nipped-in waist and full-flower skirt, was a response to the boxy, broad-shouldered styles—often actual uniforms—of the war years. “It was because women longed to look like women again that they adopted the New Look,” Dior reportedly said. Ten years later, Givenchy replied with the sack dress, an attempt to do away with, in his words, “the limitations set by the female figure itself.” The short-lived style, notes Valerie Steele in Fifty Years of Fashion, was a source of outrage for those who considered it “a deliberate obliteration of female attractiveness.” (Time magazine, Steele notes, ran the caption: “Où est la poitrine, où sont les hanches, où est la femme?”) In the ensuing decades, silhouettes expanded and contracted, variously concealing and revealing the curves therein, as the triangular mini-shifts of the sixties gave way to the skintight sheaths of the eighties. This fall, we will witness yet another rapprochement between attire and anatomy, a welcome move after several seasons of estrangement.
At the fall 2007 shows, designers channeled a return to narrowness in myriad ways. In his first collection for Nina Ricci, Olivier Theyskens went for length all over, showing stretchy, ankle-grazing skirts in shades of pale silver and gray, dresses that stick close to the body before breaking into movement at the ankle, and platforms with long ribbons that lace up the leg, ballerina-like. At Prada, frumpy-chic coats, dresses, and skirt suits seemed inspired by the straight, double-breasted lines of a grandfatherly greatcoat. The boxy conservativeness of these pieces feels perversely revolutionary in light of all the recent A-line swing.
But it was Marc Jacobs, always a harbinger of trends to come, who offered the attenuated look in its most sophisticated incarnations. His classic, wearable (minus the costumey painters’ berets) collection for Louis Vuitton included a parade of mostly black dresses, skirts, and suits cinched by gold-buckled belts sitting right on—novel to behold—the models’ waists. In his namesake line, Jacobs went in an even leaner, more streamlined direction. He sent down the runway pieces we haven’t seen in ages. There were a multitude of collared secretary blouses, wide-brimmed hats à la Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, and high-waisted trousers with strip-of-leather belts—the sort of pants more accurately called “slacks.” In fact, with its palette of burgundy, gold, royal blue, and career-woman red, all set off by white and black and beige, the collection feels very of that liminal, nearly forgotten moment when the seventies turned into the eighties, when Shy Di—and the ladies who hoped to emulate her—might have worn an ensemble like Jacobs’s geometric-patterned blouse and trim-fitting burgundy slacks. That this clothing signals a radical new direction is ironic considering how buttoned-up, even conservative, it is. (Jacobs did a pleated skirt in red leather, but it’s, well, pleated.) The contrast between this sort of polish and the ruffled clutter Jacobs showed last spring is stark: It is as though that previous collection underwent some alchemical, elongating transformation, like Alice down the rabbit hole.