The last few years have provided few opportunities for peacocking beyond donning a spiffy collar for Zoom. But as we tiptoe toward reengaging with public life, a showbird trend is taking hold in luxury: extravagant volumes of fabric pluming into hemlines, pleats, poofs, ruffles, trains, and gigantic coats that could swaddle a bear.
If you spent the winter (or most of the early ’20s) hibernating in pajamas or sweatpants, you would not be alone in wishing to roar into spring with a flourish. For that, fashion designers are preparing a plethora of options: a powerful puffer by Marc Jacobs, a billowing ball gown by Jason Wu, a sweeping train from Fendi, mile-wide ruffles at Balenciaga. Hemlines pool around models’ feet and trail behind them.
Even for his fall collection, Joseph Altuzarra showed tightly pleated wool skirts inspired by a kilt he had recently bought on a trip to Scotland. But his versions extended to the ankles and swirled. The designer confided that he used at least three times as much yardage as in a typical collection in the past.
“I’ve been approaching the idea of risk post-pandemic,” Altuzarra told me backstage in February, jouncing his toddler daughter, Emma, on his hip. “I just feel like I should be doing the most extreme thing I can.” Extreme size extended to his muse: The collection was inspired by the original absolute unit, Moby Dick. (Altuzarra gave front row guests copies of the Penguin Classics edition.)
Wu, meanwhile, says that if revenue is any indication, his clients want showpieces as never before: “The more dramatic the better.” The New York designer closed his spring collection with a washed floral gown that managed to look relaxed and easy while incorporating 20 yards of taffeta, plus flounces, ruffles, and giant poofed sleeves.
Demna Gvasalia has been beating the drum for his own often bizarre take on huge fashion at Balenciaga for several years. But it was in the spring 2022 collections that the trend of Leviathans on the runway emerged gloriously and, it’s worth nothing, utterly wearably. Now the trend has sallied forth into the fall collections, producing dramatic looks that are simultaneously easy to wear—roomy shoulders, skirts for sitting crisscross-applesauce. No one, it seems, is interested in stuffing themselves into unforgiving clothing. Two years of pajamas will do that to you.
Fashion is nothing if not a reflection of culture, our innermost desires expressed outward. So we must ask, what is happening in our collective mood right now that is resulting in a shift toward scale?
“People are thinking about making a statement, and these clothes make a statement,” posits preeminent fashion historian Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “It’s a way of saying ‘I AM HERE!’ ”
Big skirts read as feminine and chic. Massive red puffer coats—have you seen Rihanna lately?—can’t be missed. Loose dolman shoulders and oversize sweaters (worn as dresses by the daring) look cuddly and cozy and allow for easing back into social life.
There have been times in the past when voluminous garments captivated the fashion-loving public, and they often followed a period of economic shock or came from the creation of new technologies. Christian Dior, and soon an entire industry, famously celebrated the end of World War II by heaping fabric into his skirts and dresses, creating a silhouette in 1947 that Carmel Snow, the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, dubbed the “New Look.” (Notably, those wasp-waisted, full-skirted silhouettes inspired Wu’s fall 2022 collection, according to the designer, who adds that he spent part of the pandemic poring over his collection of 1950s fashion magazines.)
“That was a rebound from the war years in Rosie the Riveter coveralls,” says fashion historian and author Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, whose new book, Red, White, and Blue on the Runway, is a behind-the-scenes look at the only fashion show ever held in the White House, in 1968. Chrisman-Campbell sees reflections of a long-ago era in the preponderance of flounces, lantern sleeves, and wide ruffles being seen on runways now. She’s thinking Marie Antoinette and the let-them-eat-cake epoch, which required that carriages be redesigned so they would fit ladies’ lavish skirts (and hairdos). “We’re living in a new gilded age,” she says. “It’s a very much in-your-face look at how much fabric you can wear.”
It’s a potentially worrying analogy, given that what put an end to those massive crinoline-stuffed skirts was a bloody revolution. What’s more, ruffles, flounces, and poofs have often been seen as overly feminine and even silly. But women today are taking charge of these looks, projecting instead might and personal agency.
“Some people might say that’s infantilizing, but I think there’s actually power in that,” Chrisman-Campbell says. “I think of Rihanna on the Met stairs taking up all that space. It’s a power move.
Lead image: Fashions from Louis Vuitton, Jason Wu, Carolina Herrera, Richard Quinn and Valentino.
This story appears in the April 2022 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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