Designers Give Women Their Wrapped Attention

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

PARIS, Feb. 28 -- The image of a woman with her face covered is alarming -- at least to Western eyes. Wrap a woman's torso tightly with strips of cloth, in the manner of a mummy, a hostage or a wounded soul, and a thousand feminists soon will be picketing with raised fists. Distort a woman's body with oversize jackets, strange protuberances and saggy trousers, and there will be accusations of disrespect, mockery and the devaluation of femininity.

And so it was with some degree of worry, trepidation and anger that one watched the models emerge from the shadows as the fall 2006 shows began here Sunday night. Yohji Yamamoto obscured the female body with jackets that dwarfed the models and with trousers so exaggerated that the crotch hung to mid-calf. Rick Owens cut and stitched his jackets into a puzzle of fabrics and eccentric shapes. No small number of them protruded awkwardly from the bust like a baby's bib, starched stiff.

Viktor & Rolf exhibited their exquisite tailoring and their penchant for extravagant couture flourishes in an ode to Greta Garbo. They hid each model's face behind a catcher's mask woven from satin or strands of hair.

And at the presentation of the presciently named Undercover collection Monday evening, models stepped into the spotlight with their heads wrapped tightly, unforgivingly and, one must admit, artfully in fabric with all the translucence of a pillowcase.

Could the models in Undercover even see where they were walking? Several of them wandered just a bit off-track, bumping shoulders and even meandering into the audience seating area until redirected by a handler. Each model's entire head was bound in fabric -- black, brown or white -- with only tiny pinholes for air. The fabric was knotted in back -- or at what one assumed to be the back of the head -- in the manner of a tight chignon. Sometimes the fabric was pierced with silver rings and charms, like those worn by a tribal warrior or some disaffected teen aspiring to lead a punk band.

The models wore slim-fitting trousers and jackets in beaten-up mohair and wool with tight lacing up the back of the sleeves, looking like urban rebels on a winter day. They had on distressed black boots and occasionally wore Mongolian lamb coats, calling to mind warriors hiking through the Himalayas. They seemed under assault by their clothes, as strips of cloth or extravagantly long belts wound around the torso in the style of bandages or ropes. Each model seemed to tap into so many cultures, stigmas and prejudices that a thousand interpretations zoomed through the mind as if the National Geographic Channel had been cross-wired with MTV to create a flickering visual cacophony.

The Undercover show was staged in an area north of central Paris, a neighborhood rarely frequented by tourists. Up there, the streets are crowded with people of many hues, speaking a wide assortment of languages, with French ranking second or third in popularity. It is the sort of neighborhood where crime doesn't happen in the shadows, but right out in the daylight. It isn't unusual to see a purse snatcher, in the blink of an eye, smoothly knock a wallet from a woman's hands and scuttle across the ground after it.

It is a lively neighborhood, but it's also forlorn, and so to see women so tightly swaddled leaves one feeling all the more uneasy. The environment both inside and outside is oppressive; one can't help but wonder how these models can move, can breathe. You feel constricted, vulnerable and trapped just watching them. The first question folks ask after emerging from the show is, "Did you like it?" And the truth is that, for this show, the query is too simplistic.

There is something magical and terrifying about 20 minutes spent watching women so artfully dressed for the hangman's noose.

There is a lot of anger, as well, because the collection's Japanese designer, Jun Takahashi -- a man! -- has decided that part of his aesthetic involved putting a woman's head into, essentially, a sack. Under the best of circumstances, a model is little more than a vehicle for someone else's creative expression. The most in-demand models are not the ones bursting with their own personality but rather those who allow themselves to be possessed by someone else's. With their identical matchstick bodies, only their faces distinguish them as individuals.

In one stylistic flourish, Takahashi took that away. With their heads covered, his women are silent and powerless. They look like victims: hostages, prisoners awaiting execution, the vulnerable being spirited away by the powerful.

So much of fashion is focused on self-expression and self-definition, and here was a designer turning those elements upside down. Fashion was being used in the service of anonymity. The women were being de-feminized. Is that the only word that means to "steal one's feminine identity"? It seems so weak, so superficial. It certainly lacks the gut-wrenching punch of "emasculate." Is womanhood so cheap that destroying it takes no more energy than is required to drape a piece of muslin over the head?

Or is it so powerful that essentially it cannot be destroyed? In the past, Takahashi has sent models down his runway wearing burqas in shades of orange, fuchsia and sky blue. He mocks the idea of the burqa as dark, severe and victimizing. He warns his audience not to be ensnared by their own assumptions. In this fall collection, he keeps pushing at cultural prejudices to put forward an idea that anonymity can offer comfort and security and, yes, even beauty.

That idea is more pronounced in the work of designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, who also obscured models' faces. They presented their collection just before Undercover, a coincidence that left one feeling that the most popular accessory for fall just might be a ski mask. Their clothes at Viktor & Rolf were genteel and bourgeois. The designers offered a series of beautifully executed black dresses with artful seaming. There were charcoal gray suits that had swing jackets with gilded cuffs and skirts with sawtooth hemlines. And there were party dresses with skirts floating over crinolines.

In each case, however, the model's face was covered by the equivalent of a catcher's mask. Sometimes it appeared to be braided from strands of satin, sometimes it was woven from hair. Occasionally it was sparkling and metallic. But it always obscured the face, setting up a barrier between the woman and the world around her.

Because one could still make out the details of her eyes and her mouth, however, the model seemed isolated rather than anonymous. The old Hollywood feel of the collection, calling to mind the cool reserve of Garbo, underscored a desire to be left alone and to be perceived as untouchable. In a vernacular that is more familiar -- the netting on a mourning hat, the veil of a bride -- a mask can be more easily understood as something that can be protective rather than demeaning.

Of the handful of designers who have shown their collections here, most relate to fashion as a language rather than simply a form of commerce. Yamamoto ignores the essential shape of a woman's body to construct a collection that speaks of the space that one takes up in the world. By super-sizing his clothes, he makes the body seem that much smaller and insignificant. Instead of using fashion to bolster one's ego and confidence, he uses it to puncture the human tendency toward self-importance.

Owens treats fashion as an expression of longing. His desultory shapes and faded colors always make his models look like nomads, no matter that they are wearing jackets intended to sell for thousands of dollars.

Given the collective weight of these disconcerting masks, camouflaging shapes and unnerving expressions of rootlessness, one can't help but think that feminist outrage or humanistic anger would be misguided. The fundamental sadness in these clothes is not their oppressiveness or anonymity, but in the way they underscore a sense of universal loneliness.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company