Fashion. though, tells us something about how women are perceived in this moment, how they are living and their current priorities and desires. We have the possibility of the first female president and more women sliding into combat roles. Violence against women is a big part of the social conversation, and we are reassessing definitions of gender, reconsidering ideal body shapes and asking ourselves what it means to be feminine.
As we navigate those quandaries, fashion is created. It must conjure desire, solve problems, make women swoon.
If there has been a single thread running through fall 2016 collections, it’s a shift in proportion. Prepare to be swallowed by your clothes. Skinny jeans belong to another era. Retire the jeggings.
Designers have embraced oversize silhouettes in trousers, coats and sweaters. The list of brands signing on to this new roominess vary — DKNY, Rag and Bone, Zero+Maria Cornejo, Coach and, most majestically, Marc Jacobs.
Jacobs’s show served as the finale to this city’s runway season, and it was 17 minutes of focused, exhilarating ideas. He mounted his show in the Park Avenue Armory, a vast space with an expansive white set surrounded by four rows of stacked seating. In his show notes, Jacobs explained that he was inspired by the Japanese musician Keiji Haino and a quote attributed to him about his work: “defying the notion that you can’t create something from nothing.”
The first models emerged to the sound of a pinging bell. They were like Giacometti giants in Brobdingnagian clothes as they moved around the room on massive platform boots. A gray cardigan looked as if its sleeves were five feet long, its back stretching four feet from side to side. It was adorned with a swirl of jet beads. Patchwork dresses flowed on and on — an endless river of richly hued satin and silk.
There were patchwork coats that looked as if they had been assembled from a little of this and a little of that, the sum being more elegantly eccentric than the individual parts.
Each garment became more intriguing the closer and longer one looked. It revealed itself slowly and delighted the eye. The clothes were fascinating. Even Lady Gaga, who walked the runway as a model, submersed herself in the clothes. She was not the star; Jacobs’s oversize coat with fur sleeves was.
The design duo behind Proenza Schouler alternated between knit dresses that hugged the body and trousers that almost floated around it. Each model had a nearly triangular silhouette created by clothes that fell down and out from a narrow shoulder frame.
Jackets laced up like corsets and skirts were crafted from strips of fabric that wrapped loosely and erratically around the body. No one would declare such volume an easy style to wear. No one slips unnoticed into a room dragging extra yards of fabric. Oversize clothes announce your presence. The young men of early rap understood that. They dressed in big clothes, in part, to be big. They would not be ignored.
At Calvin Klein, designer Francisco Costa brought artful details — broken seams, frayed hems — to roomy blazers and trousers. Elegant black dresses with starburst pleats form a straight line down the torso. Curves are under wraps. The line is the star.
And Thom Browne might have taken his audience into wonderland of doggy-shape handbags and embroidery, but his clothes were strong and bold and serious. A coat was layered with another coat. A jacket sat on top of a blazer.
Clothes have become disconnected from the body. And it may have to do with our changing relationship to gender. It is being redefined as being on a continuum rather than being a matter of either/or. The clothes are less likely to highlight hourglass shapes, cleavage, hips or other physical markers of masculinity and femininity. The clothes can be dramatic and dazzling, but they do not define us.
No other brand underscores that more than Hood by Air. Designer Shayne Oliver stepped into fashion a few seasons ago with a mission of blurring gender lines and upending expectations. His influence rippled through the industry, seeping into Rihanna’s collaboration with Puma and into brands such as Rag and Bone. His fall show was a controlled chaos of models strutting and running, preening and stumbling. Men wore spike heels. Women wore the face of brooding aggression. Black shearling jackets hung off the body like dark, flapping wings. Coats swaddled the torso.
For some designers who see themselves as more connected to urban street culture than the boardroom or the charity circuit, the oversize clothes are worn on the runway with swagger. The models — male and female — are vaguely androgynous. Women do not move softly or daintily on wobbly heels. They stalk. They stomp in combat boots.
There is overt power in these clothes. This is an election in which the look of power — commander-in-chief power — could be historically altered. A woman could be the face of ultimate clout. And so designers offer up a next generation of power dressing. It is not rooted in the old notions of trim suits and sheath dresses and sturdy heels. That look is obsolete, ineffective. The new cynosure is big. The clothes allow women to take up more space. They can fill a room with their physical presence.
The work coming out of old-guard houses seems too gentle and precious for these times of brawling politics and incivility. The clothes from Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta’s Peter Copping are so pretty. They seem to have come from a era before Martin Shkreli and the San Francisco tech bro who complained to the mayor about the unsightly homeless people. People are mean. We need clothes as armor, not as artifice.
Perhaps we can still connect with them in the evening, on formal occasions when we are more mannered or when our tone has been softened by a cocktail or two. The beauty is undeniable. The question is whether, as a culture, we can appreciate it.
So for fall, Jacobs suggests putting on a game face — not a pretty face.
These are times of political brawling, the Zika virus, terrorist fears, anger, rage, vitriol. Fashion is not here to put a gloss on reality. It’s trying to help you survive it all.