Essay: The Feminine Complex

by Ana Kinsella on 22 October 2013

Spring/Summer 2014 saw designers forgo clichés and offer collections that cater to a woman's diversity, argues writer Ana Kinsella.

Spring/Summer 2014 saw designers forgo clichés and offer collections that cater to a woman's diversity, argues writer Ana Kinsella.

Fashion loves a bit of conflict. There’s a tendency in the media to divide designers into camps: the gay men, kings of fashion fantasy and froth, and the straight women, who make sensible, desirable stuff for women who look and live like them. It’s a handy way of pigeonholing the likes of Stella and Phoebe and Sarah and pitting them against Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs and Hedi Slimane, and truthfully, it’s lazy, because we all know that both camps can do both with skill and ease.

But what all of those designers do have in common is that they make clothes that are worn by women. Women of varying shapes and colours and sizes, who want different things from fashion. Some of us may want to dress like little girls, some like grown-up women. Some want to attract men with our outfits and some couldn’t give a shit. And almost none of us fit into those boxes drawn for us by designers backstage after shows: ‘the ____ woman this season is strong and powerful and loves a spike heel.’ But of course, she doesn’t really exist: she’s designer shorthand for an idealised customer.

Spring/Summer 2014 gave us smarter fashion than we’ve seen before, in the form of collections that cater to a woman’s diversity. Alexander Wang, for instance, sent out looks that could be best described as ‘girl-hot’, like sporty and boyish takes on Victoria’s Secret angels, inspiring desire in girls and leaving men, to a degree, shaking their heads. Rick Owens did diversity on the nose, with his step teams from African-American universities prompting journalists to trot out the old clichés of beauty in a thousand forms. Or Prada, a house perennially termed ‘intellectual’, as in shorthand for ‘not looking to attract a man’, which came this season with tongue firmly in cheek regarding dressing for the boys. Bra-tops were there, yes, but trompe l’oeiled into covered-up dresses. Sex, smarter designers seemed to be saying, was something we could really get to be in charge of.

When it comes to sex and gender, fashion frankly has to get smarter. Because at this point we’ve seen it all before. In 2013 it’s no longer subversive to mix latex and lace and paint it as the sexual stifling of the feminine mystique. Once that initial shock value dies down, a designer has to look elsewhere to make something feel truly bold. And outside of fashion, in pop culture what we see everywhere is young women who claim to be expressing their agency through their sexuality.  Whether or not Rihanna and Miley Cyrus are successful in that respect isn’t immediately relevant here: what is relevant is how we view fashion that tries to reclaim and redefine female sexuality on its own terms.

Surely it’s clear by now that it is reductive to view things like syrupy femininity or outré sex appeal as purely for a male audience. Women who wear provocative outfits may be doing it for their own reasons, dressing not necessarily for men and not always for women either. More often than not, they dress for themselves, to define their own sense of self, (see ‘personal style’, that fashion phrasing dominant since blogging first bloomed ten years ago) and that’s what we’re seeing shape trends now.

If there was change in the wind during this round of shows, it was a gentle rule-breaking when it comes to the woman wearing the clothes.

Example: this season and last, flat shoes, sneakers and pool slides, seen on runways like Giles, Marni, Kenzo, Valentino, Rick Owens and more, have been held up as a sign of a new era of taste-making, deriving from street-style trends, then employed by designers. If that’s true, then the boom in flats on the runway is proving the potential of the female-consumer’s genuine power in fashion. Traditionally it’s mostly those gay male footwear designers - the ones who talk rapturously about femininity and the female form - responsible for the skyscraper shoes that leave us clinging to our dates’ arms by the end of the night. But vulnerability is no longer in right now. It’s not cool to be a victim. Power is in, and what’s changing on the runway is how much of that power we can harness ourselves.

But that doesn’t mean the only alternative to vulnerability lies in Tom Ford’s leatherettes or Saint Laurent’s flesh parade. Strong, powerful womanhood can take myriad different forms today, because designers are realising that strong powerful women–their customers–take a million different forms too.

The finest example might have been found at Miu Miu as the Spring/Summer 2014 collections drew to a close. Backstage after the show Miuccia Prada, the designer most often labelled ‘smart’, admitted disparity in her Spring/Summer showing. The polar opposite of those manicured male designer preaching of ‘a sexy woman in spike heels and a pencil skirt’, Mrs Prada’s sympathies were thoroughly, consummately modern. As she spoke of repeated archetypes of woman on show – ‘Classics, classics of trash, classics of chic, classics of the good girl, classics of the bad girl,’ - what we ultimately saw in dresses, coats and skirts was complexity, and wearable complexity at that.

If there was change in the wind during this round of shows, it was a gentle rule-breaking when it comes to the woman wearing the clothes. All bets are now off. Girlishness is no longer synonymous with vulnerability and strength with a kind of Amazonian android trotted out by a man who has probably not once found a woman sexually attractive. This season the most modern and innovative collections - the most ‘now’ of them all - were those that admitted that women and our desires aren’t so easily pigeonholed, and that perhaps we don’t even want to fit into a backstage mould like ‘the _____ woman.’ The real divide amongst designers is no longer between male and female ones; it’s between those smart enough to realise our complexity and the rest of them who think this is still a game. For Spring/Summer 2014, we’re lucky to have the ones who really get it.




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