One evening in September, under a gray Paris sky, the American designer Rick Owens considered the possibility of a springtime utopia. An audience of editors, retailers and friends-of-the-design-house gathered around the fountains at the Palais de Tokyo. Owens, a die-hard fashion poet, sent models parading around the city’s landmark stone plaza, down its elegant staircases and alongside the shallow pool where towering jets of water splashed a fine, refreshing mist over the audience.
The clothes, his spring 2018 collection, came in shades of cumulus white, dove gray and grass green. They were draped and wrapped around the body in ways that were both abstract and practical. The models also wore athletic-style sandals with thick rubber soles that made them seem grounded in reality even if their clothes made them look otherworldly. Their hair was just there, not particularly styled, just barely combed. Their faces appeared makeup-free.
According to Owens’s show notes, the story of the collection was “experimental grace and form.” The clothes were meant to symbolize the rejection of day-to-day bleakness: environmental peril, social intolerance, cultural wars, political upheaval. And the presentation was intended to transport the viewer outside the strident new normal and into a misty heaven.
Owens wanted to explore the question of whether it was possible for imperfect people to create a utopia. Can flawed humans build a perfect world? Do our better angels still have a voice in these tumultuous and bitter times? Does the arc of the moral universe really bend toward justice?
The presentation may have been steeped in no small amount of pretentious esoterica. But Owens also offered his audience something valuable: an emotional release and a mental distraction. He turned the collective gaze upward, toward optimism and hope. If only for a season.
Owens’s work was emblematic of an industry shift — not titanic, but subtle and by a matter of degrees. Fashion designers have stopped moping around and stomping their feet. They’re getting on with it — with living, with pressing forward.
In the past few seasons, designers’ collections had been overwhelmingly informed by the political upheaval roiling both the United States and Europe — and indeed the world. The runway was the site of anger and frustration wrapped around immigration, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, refugees, environmental calamity and on and on and on. Fashion designers, many of whom use their work as a form of artful communication, were resisting and protesting and, in some cases, simply howling into the wind.
The resulting collections weren’t bleak, but they were often serious and sometimes even melancholy. Designers put organizers of the Women’s March on the runway. They highlighted slogan T-shirts exhorting us to all be feminists. They styled models in pussy hats as well as face masks — taking their inspiration from anarchists and antifa.
But it’s a hard thing to stay on high alert with no end in sight. So starting last fall with the spring 2018 shows, there has been an about-face on a lot of runways, with less proselytizing and more poetry. Designers are treating their work as an existential escape from the fire and the fury. The clothes of spring evoke positivity and pleasure by relying on familiar tropes: sweet flowers, pastel colors, sparkly embellishments, comforting shapes and — thanks to Balenciaga’s Crayola-bright platform Crocs — pure comedy.
For some designers, this has meant simply being more emphatic about what they have always done. If they had offered up meringue and sugarplums in the past, for spring they offered up little mermaids and unicorns. That’s what Thom Browne did — incorporating the soundtrack from the Disney film “The Little Mermaid” into a Paris runway show that ended with an enormous unicorn puppet meandering through the audience.
Other designers have been uncharacteristically jubilant. Junya Watanabe sent his usual array of punk models down his Paris runway with their hair gooped up with wax and shaped into gnarly spikes. Sharp dog collars encircled their necks. Black kohl was streaked around their eyes, and they were not smiling. The styling flourishes were pure Watanabe, a designer who revels in the simmering rage of the punk aesthetic and who regularly allows it to inform his work. But this time, instead of pairing their wrecked hair with torn fishnets and distressed concert T-shirts, the models wore skirts, dresses and tops cut from Marimekko fabric, with its childlike oversize flowers. The palette was predominantly black and white, but it was spiced with bright strokes of fuchsia or lime green. Watanabe had taken a break from his usual brooding.
At Valentino, the designer Pierpaolo Piccioli transformed the basic, utilitarian anorak into a visual treat that evoked the light, airy fragility of spun sugar. On Piccioli’s Paris runway, jackets, adorned with twinkling, crystalline paillettes, were so removed from practicality that they had become something wholly new and fresh. Just looking at them could spark a wide-eyed smile.
Dries Van Noten delivered a garden of flowers in the ornate central salon of the Hotel de Ville. Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld built an indoor waterfall at the Grand Palais and crafted clothes that called to mind the shimmering foam floating atop crashing waves. And in February in New York, Ralph Lauren shared visions of a Jamaican getaway.
Daydreams. Sweet dreams. Distractions. “We always say that fashion is a reflection of our times,” Van Noten told Vogue. “Well, maybe that’s enough of that! Let’s do something optimistic, enjoy things — and really go for it!”
The goal of all these clothes is not to stir the mind but to soothe the soul. Fashion has given in to one of its most fundamental purposes: to bring the wearer joy. To delight and amuse. To open a door and invite you to escape. Sometimes, that role seems silly or superfluous. But today, in this gloomy era, it has arguably become essential.
In dark times, people have always yearned to escape. They want a reboot to normal, a return to happier days as quickly as possible. Doing so too swiftly can feel like callousness, denial or narcissism. But our leaders have regularly — and rightly — reframed a speedy and urgent hunt for joy as a show of strength, as well as a survival tactic.
These were lessons learned during World War II. Not long after war was declared, Britain shut down many of its cultural institutions. But the National Gallery in London was allowed to host lunchtime concerts where people could spend an hour or so listening to Bach and Mozart. Would people come? Would it be viewed as a welcome distraction or a frivolous gesture? When people heard about the concerts, the line for tickets trailed across Trafalgar Square and disappeared around a corner.
People craved music. They were hungry for a few moments of pleasure. They yearned for beauty. They didn’t simply want to survive the war; they wanted to live while it was being fought.
In her 1998 book, “Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture,” historian Kathy Peiss explored the role fashion played during the war years. Fashion was intertwined with patriotism and national honor. “In the wake of the Depression and rise of fascism, the attractive, made-up woman of the 1940s bespoke the ‘American way of life’ and a free society worth defending,” Peiss wrote.
Seen through the lens of 2018, the 1940s idea of the gussied-up American woman as a symbol of national honor is a cliche, a sexist trope, the worst kind of self-defeating burden — an absurdity. But that was then. It was a time when women’s roles were still etched in patriarchal traditions and a woman’s life was limited. Her sphere was the world of fashion and beauty.
Beauty manufacturers used these notions to market their products, and journalists worried that a “national glamour shortage would seriously lower national morale,” Peiss wrote. Lipstick became evocative of glamour and sex appeal. Cosmetics became a tool for creating the precise face one wanted to show to the world. The made-up woman was a woman who was girded for battle — whether literal or metaphorical.
During the war, as women entered the workforce and took on duties once consigned to men, the old ways were upended. Gender roles were in flux. Fashion was a form of security, uplift and reassurance in a time of uncertainty. A pretty dress, a bit of red lipstick, silk stockings were all links to a life that seemed to be slipping away; they held out a promise that it would not be lost — at least not completely.
Everyone, however, did not see a fashion diversion in positive terms. In light of all that was unfolding in the world, some deemed it silly and petty for women to concern themselves with stockings or lipstick. Peiss underscores these tensions by pointing to an exchange that unfolded in the pages of the New York Times between author Fannie Hurst, who often wove social issues such as racism and feminism into her fiction, and a lipstick-loving reader. Hurst, wrote Peiss, criticized the “frivolous, self-absorbed women who tarried in beauty salons and complained over shortages of silk stockings and makeup.” A new era was dawning for women as they entered the workforce and took on roles once reserved for men. “The history of their role in this desperate struggle will not be written in lipstick,” Hurst noted.
But the reader — who described herself as a “red-blooded, red-lipped” housewife — was not keen on Hurst’s condescending dismissal of the importance and power of fashion. Her argument, as summarized by Peiss, was that “American women’s brave response to the national crisis was not diminished but enhanced by reasonable attention to appearance. Beautifying showed ‘women’s own sense of pride’ and respect for the men ‘we try most to please.’ [The reader] asked, ‘Would we help them more if, when they are about to perish for freedom’s sake, we showed ourselves to them worn with sorrow and dejection?’ ”
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the country struggled with competing emotions: anger and sorrow, as well as a longing for reassurance that it would soon be easy and appropriate to laugh and to smile. How quickly could the late-night comics return to television? Is there humor to be mined from the widespread horror? And the fashion industry wrestled with its own post-9/11 fears — namely, would anyone ever be interested in looking at cheerful frocks again?
Americans were encouraged to carry on with life, to indulge in the activities that brought them joy, because doing so was a way to fight back and to refuse to allow terrorism to dismantle our lives. Making fashion, producing runway shows, shopping for nonnecessities were all an acknowledgment that living entails more than breathing, eating and sleeping. The basics sustain life. The extras allow us to live fully.
Today, we are not engaged in trench warfare; Ground Zero is no longer a gaping hole. But the culture is shaken nonetheless. The battles are via drones and cyber hacks, on Capitol Hill, in the public square, across the backyard fence and in Twitter threads. We stand on opposite sides of gun rights, climate change, immigration, globalism, the Mueller investigation, President Trump. And what about the hurricane damage to Houston and the power outages in Puerto Rico? And don’t forget the DACA kids.
Because so much is happening that is awful, depressing and confounding, there is a worry that if one turns away from the gravitas, even for a moment, all hell will break loose. You will have failed your fellow man. If you indulge or escape, you are uncaring. You are awful. Listen to some soothing classical music if you must. But do it while volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. And fashion? Sheesh.
Recently, an especially agitated Washington Post reader emailed me about a story on Paris runway shows. She judged escapist fashion thusly: Not only is anyone who is willing to wear such folderol a fool, that person also is committing social malpractice. The time and resources that go into unicorn puppets and embellished anoraks should be devoted to saving the world.
But before people save anyone else, don’t they have to save themselves? In fact, happy fashion can be mental salvation — and perhaps it can even alter behavior. We already know that what we wear can shift our moods — the fashion industry has dubbed this “dopamine dressing” — but in 2012, scholars Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky published a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggesting that clothes can also have a measurable impact on our judgment, analytic skills and actions. It’s something they described as “enclothed cognition,” the combined effect of the clothes’ symbolism along with the physical act of wearing them.
The researchers used a white coat in their experiment, alternately referring to it as a doctor’s coat and a painter’s coat even though the coat itself never changed. For the test subjects, the former description implied scientific precision and focus; the latter suggested freewheeling creativity. When research subjects slipped on the doctor’s coat, they scored higher on tests that required rigor and sustained attention than subjects who were told they were wearing a painter’s coat.
Simply looking at the doctor’s coat and processing its symbolism was not enough to heighten the subject’s attention to detail. Seeing the doctor’s coat on someone else didn’t cut it either. The coat had to be personally worn. Once the subjects were wrapped in the semiotics, their brain functioned differently; their behavior changed.
“Does wearing the robe of a priest or judge make people more ethical?” the researchers wondered. “Does putting on the uniform of a firefighter or police officer make people act more courageously? And, perhaps even more interestingly, do the effects of physically wearing a particular form of clothing wear off over time as people become habituated to it?”
“Answering these kinds of questions would further elucidate how a seemingly trivial, yet ubiquitous item like an article of clothing can influence how we think, feel, and act,” Adam and Galinsky wrote. “Although the saying goes that clothes do not make the man, our results suggest that they do hold a strange power over their wearers.”
There is evidence — just a bit — that fashion has the potential to help us effectively change how we act. Could wearing happy, optimistic clothes make us slower to presume the worst about our fellow humans and also more inclined to reach across the political aisle? Maybe.
But even if that’s too much to expect from a floral dress or a bedazzled anorak, fashion still has immense value as a distraction from mental anguish, psychic despair and cable TV overload. Research has shown that video games can distract patients from pain or anxiety and aid in healing. Music distracts athletes from their discomfort and helps them remain committed to their workouts and enhance their performance. Distractions can function like a mental timeout, allowing people to return to a difficult task — or a dire situation — with more energy and focus. And in our polarized world, the mental equivalent of a deep breath certainly couldn’t hurt.
Fashion exists not because it is essential to life but to make life better. Women buy the Valentino dress because the dress is pretty and it makes them feel pretty, too. Men buy the limited-edition Air Jordans or the Off-White motorcycle jacket because they are cool and that aura of cool transfers to them. People buy the red Chanel lipstick because it is timeless glamour for $37, and a classic Chanel jacket is a whopping $10,000, and the lipstick comes with a hint of the fantastical waterfall that flowed in the Grand Palais.
People come for the magic. They are drawn to fashion’s promise that it will introduce a more attractive, charming, confident, powerful, intelligent, alluring or rebellious inner you to a world that seems intent on underestimating the person you are. Fashion pledges to make you seen and valued. It vows to change everything in wondrous and glorious ways. And even though fashion falls terribly short again and again, people come back. They come back despite themselves. Because it’s not the fulfillment of fashion’s promise that they long for, it’s the promise itself.
The fashion industry understands the power of its dreams and fantasies. Designers weave narratives that are meant to take you outside of your reality. But unlike a film or a painting that can only linger in your memory, you can take fashion with you: to the office, to dinner, on vacation, to the gym. You can wrap yourself in it, and it can be protective armor, an alluring force, a weapon or a grown-up version of a binky.
Six months after Rick Owens dreamed of utopia, designers have turned their eyes toward fall 2018. If anything, the clothes way off in the distance are even more vibrant, more urgently joyful than the ones arriving in stores. In particular, there is more color coming, colors that one wouldn’t ordinarily consider complementary. They are not the typical earthy hues of autumn. There are shades of mint green paired with sea-foam green. Pale pink mixed with flashes of lemon yellow. Cherry red and turquoise. Caramel and taxicab yellow. The swirling palette conjures an alternative world — an Oz in which everything burns brighter, shinier and sweeter. A Xanadu, an Eden. An escape.
Robin Givhan is The Washington Post’s fashion critic. Styling by Shirley Kurata.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that designer Rick Owens’s spring 2018 show took place in Paris at Place du Trocadero. It took place at Palais de Tokyo. This version has been updated.