Many women, having sunk the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP into a collection of volumetric dresses, will no doubt wonder what the change is about. “Wait a minute, we bought all those big things and now we can’t wear them anymore?” a bewildered Ann Curry recently asked Stefani Greenfield, owner of the Scoop boutiques, on the Today show. Those of a conspiratorial turn of mind might suspect a fashion-industry plot, a transparently manipulative attempt to force us to acquire something entirely different, just when we’d finally gotten our billowy new wardrobes in order. A more likely, if less dramatic, explanation is provided by that old saw, “fashion is fickle.” It was simply time for the bell—or the bell-shaped dress—to swing. When women look like bungalows with legs, what can silhouettes do but shrink? If you or I feel even slightly tired of looking around and seeing crowds of tunic-clad women, be assured that fashion insiders, early adopters all, feel excruciatingly bored. “If I see one more person wearing a tent dress,” Tina Chai, a fashion stylist who works with Thakoon and Band of Outsiders, told me, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
But it’s not only fashion types who are agitating for change. Women want to feel sexy—not creepy, Lolita sexy, or because-I’m-fashionable sexy (what a male friend calls “women dressing for women”)—but adult-woman sexy, which means being confident about, and sometimes (tastefully) flaunting, one’s curves.
This idea, that women are proud of their femininity and want to display it, gets at a larger, underlying possibility: The looks we are seeing may be the surest sign that designers have figured out that adult women want to look like adults. As a culture we are weary of the unsavory fascination with hapless young girls (Britney, Nicole, Paris, Lindsay). We may soon have a female president (who has her own sartorial worries, but never mind …). As women, we know our own power, professional and sexual and otherwise, and we know it is difficult to command that power in a baby-doll dress. Perhaps this fall’s sleek, serious fashions might be viewed as updates on the eighties power suit.
Several designers, in fact, have created fairly literal reimaginings of the power suit. This return to suiting—to tailored, structured, sometimes big-shouldered (though never Dynasty-worthy) pieces—may hint at one of the most plausible reasons behind the season’s shape-shifting. Formless, flowing dresses and tops have been relatively easy for companies like Zara and H&M to copy; anyone who has stepped into these stores of late knows that they are doing a brisk business in voluminous garments. The ease with which such pieces can be replicated might in part explain why styles that seem to hold little mass appeal—experiments with volume have historically been the purview of the fashion world’s high-end or avant-garde precincts—went mainstream so quickly and completely. (That, and the fact that capacious clothing, however odd it can look, is democratic with regard to body type.) It seems possible that designers, realizing their predicament, created increasingly complex clothing in an attempt to confound their imitators, as Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan has suggested in The Wall Street Journal. Discount stores will still attempt to rip off fall’s key looks. But it will be much more difficult to execute the structure and tailoring of, say, Balenciaga’s schoolboy jacket, or Lanvin’s exquisitely-cut sleeve. “It is certainly harder to copy a pair of trousers, or the shoulder of a jacket, than a simple dress,” says Julie Gilhart, senior vice-president and fashion director at Barneys New York. “But doing so is like watering down your juice: It’s not going to be as expensive, but it’s also not the real thing, and it’s not going to taste as good.”
Colors and fabrics come and go, but a proportion shift often means significant, lasting change is afoot. We have only to think of Dior’s New Look, or Balenciaga’s cocoon dress, or Mary Quant’s minis, or Thierry Mulger’s hyperbolic hourglass. These changes were, at least in retrospect, easy to pin to some greater cultural shift: the end of World War II, the sexual freedom brought by the Pill, the rise of the female executive. Not only did the new shapes linger for at least a few years, many of them permanently insinuated their way into the culture—after all, we still wear sheath dresses and miniskirts. These days, styles come and go much more rapidly. It can be difficult to discern what has departed permanently and what will endure. Have the past few years signaled a significant evolution in which avant-garde shapes have gone mainstream? Is the current season all about countering that excess? Or is the trim new silhouette itself a major change? What is certain is that circus-tent dresses are on their way out. “We’re still seeing some volume,” says Gilhart, “but it’s much more contained.” At Lanvin, for instance, Alber Elbaz created a gorgeous fuchsia sack dress that is billowy through the sleeves but narrower through the body. Proenza Schouler’s roomy trousers fit snugly through the hips. Indeed, if one purchase for fall will cover both extremes, that would be a pair of these slouchy-slim trousers. If nothing else, they will be a reminder that although women may have spent the past couple of years in ridiculously unflattering dresses, we can still wear the pants.