The End of the Blob

THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW At left, Chloé's fall 2006 collection, the apex of the baby-doll dress. At right, Calvin Klein's fall 2007 wool jersey box bleat dress ($2,150, 654 Madison Ave., nr. 60th St., 212-292-9000).Photo: Firstview [2]

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.

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.

Hairpin turns in fashion history, from the New Look to now.

Photo: Pat English/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

1947: The New Look
First Christian Dior’s opulent silhouettes instantly made all those tailored wartime dresses look starved …

Photo: Rue des Archives/The Granger Collection

1965: The Mini
…Then Mary Quant’s schoolgirlish high hems made full skirts look hopelessly bourgeois…

Photo: Reg Lancaster/Getty Images

1969: The Pantsuit
… Then Yves Saint Laurent’s androgynous suit made the mini look juvenile …

Photo: Meyerpress/Rex USA

1985: Shoulder Pads
… Then shoulder pads made pantsuits look asexual …

Photo: Firstview

1988: The Bubble Skirt
… Then poufs made shoulder pads look too serious …

Photo: Firstview

1992: Minimalism
… Then minimalism made poufs look insubstantial …

Photo: Firstview

1995: Sex
… Then Tom Ford’s landmark Gucci collection made minimalism look cold-blooded, which leads to the baby doll, which leads to now.

SEE ALSO:Hairpin Turns in Fashion History

The End of the Blob