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Essay: Sugar and Spice

by Alexander Fury on 23 March 2012

The overriding–even overpowering–theme of the Spring/Summer 2012 shows was 'sweetness'. Alexander Fury offers his take on the sugar rush.

The overriding–even overpowering–theme of the Spring/Summer 2012 shows was 'sweetness'. Alexander Fury offers his take on the sugar rush.

Image by Nick Knight

I'm not a fan of sweetness. Which means I'm in trouble when it comes to Spring/Summer 2012. Because if ever a season was cloying, sickly-sweet and pastel-drenched, it's right now. We've just seen the A/W 12 shows, so of course fashion has already done a volte-face - the dozen or so sleek black trouser-suits that opened the Prada show couldn't be further away from spring, including Miuccia's milkshake-hued Americana. But if you head to any designer store right now and thrust out an arm, chances are it will collide with something sequinned, ruffled, diaphanous, chiffaneous and/or nipple pink.

It's interesting. In these times of fragmented, trend-free fashion, it's rare designers speak with so insistent and consistent a voice. Marc Jacobs in New York, Christopher Kane in London, Versace in Milan. Even Phoebe Philo's Céline had a million frilly peplums, for God's sake - she called them 'basques' and threw out references to folk dance in her always-cryptic audience hand-out, but really they amounted to gigantic ruffles sprouting out of every hipline.

'How sweet!' we trilled in New York. It was still sweet in London, and in Milan, even if all that sugar had started to sink to the bottom of our stomach. In Paris, it became too, too much. Louis Vuitton was the cherry on top of the cake - set against soundtracks from Rosemary's Baby and Dario Argento's baroque horror masterpiece Suspiria, all that sweetness started to look pretty sick in Jacobs' hands. It was the perfect summary to a season that, sugar-coated as the outside seemed, possibly had poison at its heart.

It's profoundly disturbing to see grown women got up as pre-teens, albeit a natural conclusion in a culture obsessed by youth at the expense of all else.

What do I mean by that? Well, for me, there's something retrograde in these images of sweetness, in the very idea of a woman dolled-up in pastel ruffles and flounces. Doll is the word: personally, it's difficult to watch women who seem manipulated into their clothes. It made me think of Trilby and her Svengali, or Eliza and Professor Higgins: men moulding and manipulating women into their image of femininity. That's not always the case, but here there were uncomfortable echoes.

My taste is for power in clothing. I like women to look like women, not fairies, or flowers, or Christ forbid children. Theres nothing worse than that knock-kneed, doe-eyed, simpering simpleton pose that has proliferated of late, a twenty-first century take on Kinderwhore. It's profoundly disturbing to see grown women got up as pre-teens, albeit a natural conclusion in a culture obsessed by youth at the expense of all else. There is an argument that, by dressing in the garb of a child, a woman choses to remove herself from the sexual arena, eschewing trussed-up tailoring and 'fuck me' shoes. Maybe that is the case for some, but looking at the women who (again) chose to don stilettos and pencil-skirts, there is nothing of the victim. There's undeniable confidence spoken by a high heel, a tight skirt - in women dressed as women. That's something proposed by designers as diverse as Vivienne Westwood and Miuccia Prada. They're not necessarily making an intentional feminist statement (despite interpretation of their work as such) but, as women dressing women, isn't the most telling feminist statement they can make simply getting on with the job? It isn't gender specific: look at Azzedine Alaïa. There isn't a whisper of chauvinism to his clothing, dedicated purely to the glorification of the female form. One doubts Grace Jones or Tina Turner would ever wear anything less than utterly empowering and authoritative. I also doubt either would ever wear a ruffle organdie prom-dress.

The real issue I have with this sugar-and-spice schtick is when it's presented as an 'edgy' catwalk statement, as if dressing a woman in jabots and ostrich-feather embroidery is a great leap for fashion-kind (or even for womankind). Sure, they're 'explorations' of our enduring stereotypes of women as fragile and sweet, but they reflect those stereotypes rather than offering anything new. The flip side, however, was put to me by Lady Amanda Harlech, one of the strongest fashion females I know. Confronted with my tumb-thumping critiques of the season's saccharine underbelly, Harlech paused, then said: 'Sometimes women just want to look fragile.' Simple, but speaks volumes.

Many thanks to:
Rebecca Lowthorpe and ELLE UK magazine

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