Essay: Harriet Walker

Lumps and Bumps

by Harriet Walker .

We claim to be unshockable now, but our culture’s aggressive pursuit of perfection means we’re actually more conservative than we have been for decades. For every thousand shoppers who pick up a challenging cut in Zara, there’s a fake-tanned, fake-breasted reality star on the front page of a tabloid newspaper.

In the age of Photoshop, Spanx and the irrepressible Kate Upton, extra-terrestrials visiting Earth could be forgiven for assuming that the pursuit of perfection was mankind’s single-most mission in life, one taken up with evangelical zeal and a cavalier disregard for anything nature ever intended.

And so it is, of course, when bum-plants and Botox are at everyone’s disposal, and selfies and saline drip diets have become cultural signifiers. We go to the ends of the Earth to find our best angles. Sometimes we get a little help sharpening them too.

But, as with all mainstream monomania, a quietly disruptive subculture has begun to swim against the tide. Those involved are aiming not for the carbon-copy aesthetic appeal that comes from the prevailing one-eyed perception of beauty, but rather for a version that challenges and questions that very notion. That interrupts the narrative of homogenised aspiration, and that confronts the way we view the female body.

It might come as a surprise that this subculture is by no means underground or niche, but it shouldn’t – it’s a movement taking shape among your friends, your colleagues, the woman you queued behind at lunchtime, the one next door to you in the changing rooms. A language of fashion that allows a woman to express not only herself but also her disregard for the beauty consensus has grown up alongside that of gender equality in recent years and, as women have begun to shout louder, so they have taken to dressing in a way that ups the volume too.

If the male gaze has historically been the filter for so much of what we believe to be beautiful then, as we reach an era when feminism has become practically part of the vulgate, it makes sense to reject it. And fashion has done its best in recent seasons to prompt consumers to think hard about doing just that.

What we see increasingly, both on the catwalk and the pavement, is a willingness in high-end and high street shoppers alike to reconsider the archetypal precepts of female dress. That is, what fits and flatters the feminine form in the traditional way. Of course, silhouettes have changed with time and trends – as have ideas of attractiveness and sensuality – but we have been beholden to a tits ‘n’ arse aesthetic for almost a century (yes, bustles count).

That reached its zenith during the early to mid-noughties preoccupation with body-con, a style as tight and restrictive as the parameters it forced on fashionable femininity. Woe betide any lumps and bumps that might show through – or those without the desired lumps and bumps to carry them off. It was misogyny written in elastic; Naomi Wolf’s 'Iron Maiden' with added stretch. A misogyny that, combined with a vogue for expensive-looking tans and hair extensions, became a beauty standard for women, whatever end of the market you were browsing.

More than that, it also encouraged Western cultures to equate beauty with clothes that were revealing, tight and the highly sexualised. Anything less than that becomes ugly, then – droopy, frumpy and frigid, words that are just about as bound up in female sexuality as they possibly could be.

But that aesthetic has been unseated in recent years. Something very important happened to fashion in the closing years of the new century’s first decade. Quietly, at first, and among the upper echelons: the arrival of Phoebe Philo at Celine; the growing prominence of sports luxe tailoring at Stella McCartney; a retro gamine look under Hannah McGibbon at Chloe; and slate-grey suiting worn by bowl cut-bewigged models at Stefano Pilati’s Yves Saint Laurent.

Then it filtered through a little more, with the opening of the minimalist’s high street haven COS and the increasing popularity of Scandinavian brands throughout the British market. Darker shapes, indistinct cuts, something more sober and less sexy. Not at all sexy, in fact, in asymmetry, draping, longer lengths and deconstruction.

All the tropes that the Japanese made use of in the eighties, and which the Belgians took up in the nineties, both with the intention of disrupting the prevailing idea of beauty and perfection, of confronting us with something technically ‘ugly’ to an eye accustomed to the bourgeois standard. People were shocked then; are we now?

Not particularly. What happened in previous decades was a jolt from outsiders, and what we’re experiencing now comes from deep within the establishment. This version of ugly – that is, intellectual clothing which happens to be comfortable and alluring without revealing all - has been rebranded as good taste.

Its hallmark is exaggeration - oversized knitwear and funnel necks; long, nail-grazing sleeves; voluminous wide-leg culottes and high-waisted trousers – and, within that, a hyperbolic take on modesty perhaps. Midi-skirts become a signifier more than a style statement, worn A-line and kilt-like with flat shoes, a modern update of a traditional school uniform.

All of these appeared in Victoria Beckham’s autumn 2014 collection. And when Victoria Beckham is working in a mode that doesn’t conform to the archetype of ‘flattering’ womenswear, one can safely assume that the philosophy has become part of the mainstream - though it’s notable too that a designer with such mainstream appeal has embraced the look as she has.

It’s because the conversation about modern femininity is no longer something that happens on the periphery, and it’s no longer confined to cerebral abstraction. We’re all talking about it, and the market has responded in kind – with womenswear that plays to the female gaze, rather than the male one.

Clothes like these are across the high street, no longer contained to the fashionable minority. The ethos has been tamed, of course, but its precepts remain. The sartorially aware consumer of now has seen JW Anderson in Topshop, and Proenza Schouler on the red carpet. Fashion that doesn’t conform to ‘pretty’ or ‘flattering’ is no longer as arresting as it once was.

We claim to be unshockable now, but our culture’s aggressive pursuit of perfection means we’re actually more conservative than we have been for decades. For every thousand shoppers who pick up a challenging cut in Zara, there’s a fake-tanned, fake-breasted reality star on the front page of a tabloid newspaper, designed to undermine the confidence we have in taking charge of the way our bodies are perceived.

What’s telling too, of course, is that we still refer to clothing like this as ‘ugly’, albeit with knowingly un-mimed air-quotes. The very fact we qualify it as such is proof enough that opting for anything short of sanitised is, in our culture of pert and pretty perfection, is still viewed as pretty weird. And that’s an ugly realisation in itself.