You Think You See Me.
But Do You Really?
By Magda Pescariu
Almost a year has passed since fashion designers all over the world started their work on the Spring-Summer 2018 collections. That’s how the fashion clock is ticking, months and months ahead of the actual time of the year – two calendar seasons ahead, to be precise.
So last February, once the launching of the fall-winter season had concluded, the fashion powers that be relished the extended applause suffusing the rarefied atmosphere of the runways, sighed with relief, and returned to their drawing boards and negotiation tables with minds already turned on by the creatively clean slate of the forthcoming spring-summer season. It seems that inspiration has flowed freely and quite exuberantly, since the styles created are equally vivid and forceful, fluid and enlightened, coquettish and full of candor, not only a celebration of optimism and energy absolutely natural for the season of renewal, but also a sign that we took back one of our greatest powers – the subversive power of collective joy.
Little did they know that the market debut of the 2018 Spring collections would land in the midst of one of the most convoluted moral scandals of modern times, right at a time when the dominant paradigm of gender interactions and power play at work (and not only) has been challenged to its core and forever (hopefully) shaken if not changed altogether.
You may ask, of course, what do the Weinstein-affair and the exposure of his doppelgängers-in-crime’ most appalling side have to do with fashion? Or, how and where does the territory of 2018 Spring-Summer fashion trends interact with this (again, hopefully) watershed moment? I think the answer is self-evident and it lies in the deep-rooted patriarchal social approach and in the patronizing expectations men across continents and industries continue to have for women in all aspects of life – looks being the clear front runner.
So here I was, sorting press releases info, watching fashion shows and flipping through runway stills, making notes of the spring’s most relevant fashion trends, when I realized with a nervous chuckle that a major trend of this spring is transparency. What were the odds? Skin revealing designs, sheer tops showcasing lacey bras or, even better, stand-alone bras, knickers on display almost everywhere you look, barely-there wispy dresses, sheer plastic trench-coats, rain capes, hats or high-boots, translucent cardigans – they tell a narrative of body confidence and of finally getting to wear clothing with which we can play and have fun.
As busy as I was to catch all the styling tricks used to preserve modesty in the eye of the transparency tornado – creative approach to layers, patterns, embroideries, appliqués, full-coverage panties or bodies – and to make a comprehensive list of the other selected fashion trends, I couldn’t ignore the reports of power abuse in all its shapes and forms that were flooding the screens of phones, tablets, laptops and TVs everywhere, more sickening and obnoxious with each new story shared by victims and each new voice heard.
It didn’t come as a surprise at all. Our society, as modern as it pretends to be, is ruled by men. The world’s status quo is determined by men in every important field, be it economics, politics, religion, science or culture. As a result, it is always men who benefit from the status quo and who are free of the burden of responsibility for their behavior. Patriarchy has carefully placed the responsibility for chaste, moral and purist behavior on women, and designed a clever mechanism to always blame them for any immoral occurrence, as they are ever “asking for it” by way of their looks or by the clothes they decide to wear or not to wear. When it comes to sexual violence of any degree, blaming the victim is so common nowadays that it has become almost standard procedure in rape investigations to ask the question “What were you wearing?” first.
Transparency, in this context, along with other seasonal fashion trends, such as saturated colors, fringes and tulle, satin and shine, is no coincidence, as it praises the inherent fluidity, beauty and lightness of the female body, and elevates instantly any silhouette to a confident and zestful attitude.
The trend for transparent looks is no novelty either, one of its first promoters being British designer Charles Frederick Worth, in his lavish creations for The House of Worth in the 1860s. French designer Jacques Doucet followed, around 1880s, with his elegant dresses inspired by the Impressionists, made with delicate translucent materials in superimposing pastel colors. And then, of course, Madeleine Vionnet, the 1930s’ iconic artist of transparency, who knew like no one else how to use sheer fabrics, by layering, draping, and manipulating them into a Greek-goddess effect that transcended any issue of overexposure, and expressed -rather than covered- the body.
Later in the century, fashion stylists played with a faux transparency in which fabrics no longer necessarily fully exposed the body, but mimicked sheerness with the use of flesh-colored fabrics, creating what is now known as ‘the bare look’ or ‘the naked dress’.
The most famous naked dress that comes immediately to mind is the one worn by Marilyn Monroe at the Democratic fundraiser at Madison Square Garden in New York City, on May 19, 1962, when she breathily sang ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ to a charmed, indeed, JFK. We cannot say for sure that this was Marilyn’s greatest moment or the most reckless for that matter, as her short life was richly lived, but certainly it was a great fashion moment, one to be treasured forever by fashion history. The naked dress that could have been painted on Marilyn (it was so tight that she wore nothing underneath and had to be sewn in) was the work of French designer Jean Louis, who did work as well for the Duchess of Windsor, and was adorned with more than 2,500 rhinestones hand-inserted. Most likely kept in a temperature-controlled vault today, to prevent decay or disintegration, the legendary dress will forever inspire and incite, symbolizing a singular moment of power and joy lived by a woman who died less than three months after the landmark performance, a staple victim of her time, crushed by a patriarchal system with zero tolerance for female daringness.
In the 90s, other designers carried the torch for the bare look, reaching new heights when fêted character Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) wore a ‘naked dress’ for her first date with Mr. Big and in a shoot for an ad that ran on the side of a bus in Sex and the City (costume designer Patricia Field).
Where does that leave us today? Designers tend to set aside the Vionnet craftsmanship, the art of Paco Rabanne dress from the 1960s, and the subtle flesh-toned effect of 1990s’ Calvin Klein. They encourage us to experiment and dare, to drop any victimhood and submissive attitude, and to express our bodies with confidence and panache. As Anna Wintour underlined about the 2018 Spring – Summer fashion shows, we got to see “models of different shapes, ages, ethnicity and backgrounds” and “because we are living in challenging times, the designers felt quite rightly that what should be celebrated is clothes that make you smile or that you want to have fun with; clothes that were really the antidote to what we might be seeing on our phones or our computers. It is the right moment to recognize that fashion has a responsibility to be in step with the times and not persist in portraying a one-note way of looking at women.”
Take a look at the photos, please. We’ve come a long way from Marilyn’s vulnerable and fragile look to the élan and sway easily read in today’s models’ pose and celeb’s attitude. Maybe the way once-powerful men are finally being swept out of their mighty positions and being held responsible for their proclivities and horrible behavior is a watershed moment, with long-term consequences and ground-shifting results. Forgive my skepticism, but I’m not holding my breath; at least not while the groper-in-chief narrative is unfolding unrestrained under our enabling eyes. But I cheer the opportunity to change this paradigm and the reality that we took back our power to speak the truth, to confront the offenders, to find solace in our numbers and gain confidence from solidarity, to feel free to enjoy. Something has been definitely put in motion, but it’s important to get rid of all opaqueness while everybody is willing to listen, while everybody is looking. They think they see us. But do they really? Or they are only interested in what we wear when.
Transparency is bliss.