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Essay: Lost Girls

by Liberty McAnena on 16 October 2014

Writer and researcher Liberty McAnena offers an adaptation of her Central Saint Martins thesis on fashionable trope of 'the feminine stray'.

Writer and researcher Liberty McAnena offers an adaptation of her Central Saint Martins thesis on fashionable trope of 'the feminine stray'.

The House on the Hill by Arthur Elgort for British Vogue

Flick through any fashion magazine and you will see them. Wandering through a forest or languishing in a meadow. Perhaps they will be skulking outside an empty house or sleeping by a stream. These are the ‘Lost Girls’, a trope in literature, film, art and now fashion that has become oddly ubiquitous over the past fifteen years. They look like something from a fairy tale - a descendant of Little Red Riding Hood or Alice perhaps, but not as instantly recognisable. The 'Lost Girl' is anonymous, and more than that she is ambiguous. Maybe she doesn’t want to be found.

‘Lost Girl’ is a term for that particular type of young woman so often seen in contemporary fashion imagery. She represents fantasy in a way that few other fashion tropes do - whilst jetsetters with Louis Vuitton luggage and couture-clad brides are not 'realistic' per se, they do have an aspirational quality. Much mainstream fashion imagery is preoccupied with a glamorous, luxury version of real life and in the latter part of the 20th century this ideal has only become more prominent - fashion is frequently presented as being multi-functional to suit the increased number of roles that women have access to (Sharp-suited career woman going straight from the office to a cocktail bar! Elegant-yet-pragmatic mother! Sexy-but-not-slutty single gal!). The 'Lost Girl' is at odds with this idea of 'having it all.' She doesn’t seem to have anything. Sometimes she is accompanied by an animal companion or a small child. Sometimes she has a twin or a doppelgänger, identical and equally lost. Generally, she is alone.

The 'Lost Girl’s' appearance is almost unwavering: very young (and styled to look younger), her figure slender and childish, her hair long and tousled, her skin pale (and invariably white). She is usually dressed in one of two ways: lavish, otherworldly gown or something dainty and demure - and considering she is most often seen outdoors, practicality is not a concern. Crucially, the model (and even the clothes) can never exist as a 'Lost Girl' alone; they must come together in a suitably surreal setting - how else could she be 'lost'? - so she tends to inhabit issues of Lula magazine under Leith Clark and the work of Tim Walker. Unlike other fashionable tropes, the 'Lost Girl' has a specific type of hyper-femininity. She is not constructed with the help of architectural Comme or Margiela or starkly-lit studios, she doesn’t wear graphic makeup and she hasn’t got an undercut. She is not modern or normcore or even very cool. But the 'Lost Girl' is always in style.

It is quite possible that the appearance of vulnerability does not equal weakness - if a girl is alone in the woods do not assume that she is afraid. Perhaps it is you who should be afraid of her.

Fairy tales lend themselves to fashion easily, in part due to their shared focus on fantasy and escapism but mainly because they do not date - their ability to transcend time and place, thus becoming engrained in popular culture means that 'fashion' can never really exist within them. Little Red Riding Hood is just as capable of advertising lipstick today as she was a hundred years ago, and shoe designers will forever cite Cinderella as their poster girl.

Designers that came to prominence during the 1990s (John Galliano, Olivier Theyskens and Alexander McQueen) created clothes with someone like a 'Lost Girl' in mind and their influence remains evident. They were darkly romantic, with catwalks populated by running princesses and howling wolves. McQueen in particular faced harsh criticism for the allegedly misogynistic portrayals of women in his shows - wasn’t the girl he made clothes for kind of a victim? But he was adamant in his response: ‘I design clothes because I don’t want women to look all innocent and naive, because I know what can happen to them... I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.’ It is quite possible that the appearance of vulnerability does not equal weakness - if a girl is alone in the woods do not assume that she is afraid. Perhaps it is you who should be afraid of her.

In this way the 'Lost Girl' owes as much to films as to fables, and in fact has an air of other tropes about her; the ‘final girl’, with a shade of ‘action babe’ thrown in for good measure. She’s the girl who survives the until the end of the movie, the girl whose sweet looks belie her ability to throw a mean punch. Her sexuality is not overt but perhaps slightly fetishistic, far removed from cleavage or stiletto heels. There is more to her than meets the eye.

Now more than ever fashion imagery is intrinsically linked with girlhood. At the cinema, we can identify a teenager’s bedroom by the magazine page murals all over her walls, and indeed magazines have become almost as closely associated with femininity as Disney heroines or the colour pink. The 'Lost Girl' fits perfectly into this landscape of romanticised cartoon girlishness, finding her way onto moodboards and Tumblr pages around the world. Rather than appealing to men, her adoring audience is primarily made of women, her allure based not on sex but on an idealised nostalgia: she is your favourite childhood character grown up and dressed in Chanel.

Alexander McQueen, 2002

We only meet the 'Lost Girl' at one point in her story: when something is about to happen or perhaps immediately after it has happened, caught forever in a moment of suspense. Is she awaiting a rescuer, or is she complicit in the danger that surrounds her? Innocent or knowing? Sleeping or dead? This enigmatic atmosphere is exciting but incredulous: in a world where women are taught not to walk home alone at night, there is something vaguely perverse about advertisements starring fragile young girls alone in the woods. The 'Lost Girl' is as representative of real women as Barbie is. Maybe that’s the point.

Fashion imagery doesn’t present reality; these are not real clothes that will tear and stain and look dated in six months but rather the idea of clothes. In the same way, the 'Lost Girl' is not a real girl because she isn’t supposed to be one; she is a dream girl, combining the fantastical with an intriguing anonymity that befits the nameless adolescent models who embody her. Hyper-youthful, hyper-feminine and perennially marketable - could she be fashion’s ideal woman?

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