The Next Big Thing?

Shapes and silhouettes are getting larger. Is this a sign of times ahead? Or simply the reactionary nature of fashion?

Models on the runway at J JS Lee, Houghton and Thom Browne. Photographs: Getty Images

Models on the runway at J JS Lee, Houghton and Thom Browne. Photographs: Getty Images

Mon, Apr 28, 2014, 14:30

Last month, Rihanna arrived at Heathrow Airport in London wearing a humongous star-spangled backpack. In its immensity, it was akin to the giant sack used to pilfer all of Whoville’s gifts in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” “I don’t know what she put in it,” said Adam Selman, the knapsack’s designer, “but it’s the perfect weekend bag for the gal on the go.” It was undeniably versatile (she could have used it as a sleeping bag).

It retailed for $685 at Opening Ceremony and Browns in London, and sold out. This wasn’t Rihanna’s first foray into Cyclopean attire. During Paris Fashion Week in March, she wore a look that her stylist Mel Ottenberg culled from the New York VFiles show that highlighted emerging designers. The outfit’s standout component was a foam-padded pleather motorcycle jacket that stretched to the singer’s ankles.

In this ensemble, Rihanna attended the Comme des Garcons show on March 1st. Synergetic lightning struck. Rei Kawakubo, no stranger to pushing the boundaries of beauty and scale, opened with a blazer so big the model could have shoplifted a TV under it. Other outsize garments followed (many trailing sleeves).

The pendulum effect

Before the fall fashion shows were over, blown-up looks had appeared on the runways at Prada, Rick Owens, VFiles, Jonathan Saunders, Thom Browne and Gareth Pugh, among others. All of which leads to the question: Why is fashion being supersized? One might think that Claes Oldenburg was collaborating on capsule collections with the fashion cognoscenti.

“Fashion is reactionary,” said Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Sensibly, she explained that fashion is moving away from “a close-to-the-body moment.” “It’s the pendulum effect,” she said. “If it’s long, it gets short, and if it’s short, it gets long.”

Simon Doonan, the creative ambassador of Barneys New York, is similarly unsurprised that gigantism is having a moment. “The shrunken silhouette has been dominant,” he said. “The teeny jacket and impossibly narrow sleeves. It’s logical there is a change.”

Melitta Baumeister, who designed the jacket Rihanna wore in Paris, and whose work will sell at Dover Street Market and VFiles in July, said that she was merely playing with proportions. “I want to challenge the viewer’s eye,” Baumeister said. “What is normal for a garment?”

Confident New Look

Silhouettes expand during boom times, we know. Christian Dior’s full-skirted New Look of 1947 was a militant rebound from wartime frugality and rationing. (Contrarily, some saw it as a return to the kitchen for the pants-wearing women who had entered the workforce while men were away at war.) Perhaps giant fashion portends a respite from the global financial malaise.

Still, fall’s cartoonish catwalk extremes lead one to wonder where they fit in a broader landscape. Are we witnessing a sartorial form of island gigantism, the phenomenon that brought about hulking megafauna like the Komodo dragon and the dodo? Christopher Raxworthy, the associate dean of science at the American Museum of Natural History, described how such creatures evolved.

“Key predators on a mainland weren’t there,” said Raxworthy, who has studied an extinct giant Cuban owl, among other plus-size species. “There was no reason to stay small and nimble. You could stay flightless and big and hang around.” Raxworthy sees a parallel in fashion. “The designers are feeling safe,” he said. “Maybe fashion reviewers just aren’t as hostile as before.” Huge fashion has surely been with us before. “Think about Louis XIV, gigantic Elizabethan ruffles and skirts,” said Doonan. “Anytime people want to telegraph power, gigantic is a way to go.” Many of the oversize garments on the runway skew traditional men’s wear, suggesting a feminist co-opting of a masculine form: woman as Amazon warrior. To another observer, the clothes swallow the wearer, reducing her to a childlike state, a full-grown woman playing dress-up. An inflated silhouette doesn’t play just with the dimensions of clothes, but with power.

Although Elizabethan farthingale enormousness predated her, the reigning queen of colossal fashion was Marie Antoinette, whose wardrobe and towering bouffant epitomized excess. “She knew what she was doing in those eye-catching costumes,” said Caroline Weber, a French literature professor at Columbia and author of “Queen of Fashion,” about Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe. “But it contributed to her demise. She drew ire because she made herself a conspicuous fashion plate.”

Weber has personal experience with elephantine garb. A favorite piece a decade ago was a pink Junya Watanabe duvet coat (basically a bedspread with a button). “It made me look like a dogwood in bloom,” she said. “A number of students wrote about it in the professor evaluations. One said I wore a sleeping bag to class. I still have it. It’s in basement storage because it takes up so much room.” Marie Antoinette’s crinoline vastness inspired Victorian-era skirts so grand that escaped convicts could have hidden underneath. “It’s a way of saying, ‘I’m important, pay attention to me,’” Steele said. “You can’t ignore a woman whose skirt is 8 feet wide.” A cri de coeur for today: Look at me! I’m gigantic! “We live in an exhibitionist time,” Doonan said. “The best way to get attention is to max out the silhouette. Among people who buy high fashion, you’re going to see them going for these giant Comme des Garcons pieces. They’re beautiful, and miracle of miracles, they fit everyone!”

Not that you should necessarily wear such a garment. Ottenberg, the stylist, said: “If you have to ask, ‘Can I pull off this enormous coat?’ you shouldn’t try it.” But dressing in large scale has its peculiar boons. Doing so deflects attention from a problem area and makes you look as if you’ve lost a lot of weight. When those clothes start getting small again, you’re in dire trouble.

The New York Times News Service

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