Very slowly, the kind of clothing available – and the kind of bodies they’re being made for – is shifting and Emma Clifton is thrilled to see it.
One week into Level 4 Lockdown last year, I saw a sight that was so beautiful that it may have changed how I feel about fashion forever. It was early enough into lockdown that visiting the supermarket at 9pm still felt like an life-risking adventure and the flat I rent is in a swanky part of Auckland, where shoppers are generally a Dressed Up kind of people. But there I saw her: A woman, I would say in her 40s or 50s, wearing full pyjamas, a fluffy robe and slippers. She was in the canned vegetables aisle, wearing this sleepy-time ensemble with the stage-ready gravitas of someone accepting an award.
She looked like she was at the end of her goddamn tether and I saw my own tenuous mental state reflected in her fluffy glory. I loved her, I respected her, I feared her. She was the sartorial canary in the mine of what was to come: a total breakdown of the barriers between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ clothes, and as someone who feels like their truest self while in an elasticated waist, I was thrilled to see it.
For the longest time, all of the trappings we associate with the feminine wardrobe were, in one way or another, pain related.
For the longest time, all of the trappings we associate with the feminine wardrobe were, in one way or another, pain related. Heels are a nightmare and with our post-pandemic eyes, the fact that a night out with the ladies usually resulted in limping around with our shoes clutched in our hands, bemoaning the blisters and numb balls of our feet, feels like sheer insanity. Body con dresses – and their hidden cousins, shapewear – also feel like relics of the past. The other day, on the ferry ride to Waiheke, they played a promotional video for winery tours where a bunch of bright young things drunk their way around the sunny island and every single one of them was in a loose flowy dress and flat white sneakers. It looked like a quiet revolution.
The minute we got home, stayed home, all of the extra – and external – paraphernalia that comes with the female experience just dropped off.
The comfortisation of women’s clothing has been a slow burn that picked up the pace dramatically with the onset of the pandemic. The minute we got home, stayed home, all of the extra – and external – paraphernalia that comes with the female experience just dropped off. For some people, it stayed off. It was a global trend, too – never forget the headlines of last year about the rise of the ‘nap dress’, which is exactly what it sounds like (a dress that also acts like a nightgown). A matching tracksuit has returned to the height of chic for the first time since the Juicy Couture days of yore.
But there is another reason that I think the restrictive nature of women’s clothing has changed and it comes from a place just as dark as the pandemic. The male gaze has dominated what women are supposed to wear for a very long time – from the historical tortures of foot binding and corsets to the modern incarnations of this (anything that requires Spanx). But the power of the male gaze is shifting and there have been noticeable leaps when it comes to the bodies we now see in our pop culture. We have the #metoo movement to thank for it. For a very long time, the gate-keepers of who got the jobs and what kind of body was on acceptable for display, either on our screens or on the catwalks, were a handful of men at the top.
In amongst the notorious allegations against Harvey Weinstein was the fact that he had an ‘ideal’ body type for all young actresses – very thin, shocker – and that he was known for keeping jobs away from women who didn’t diet fast enough. As an example, Jennifer Lawrence (a thin, white, young woman) was asked to do a naked line-up with other actresses in front of Hollywood producers and then told to use photos of her naked body as inspiration to lose weight.
For so long, the clothes that were considered fashion were designed to be worn on only the thinnest, whitest bodies available and they were all about how they looked, rather than how they felt.
Jeffrey Epstein, the dead alleged sex trafficker, was very close with Leslie Wexner, the big cheese at Victoria’s Secret (in fact, ‘being a modelling scout’ was allegedly one of the ruses Jeffrey used to explain the number of young girls visiting his home). For over 40 years, Victoria’s Secret defined the idea of ‘the ideal female body’; the jewel in the crown being the yearly show, where models would slink down the runway in thousand-dollar slips of silk. The work-out routine to be one of those models was basically industry lore – the details breezily given out to the press, even though the company line was the girls had to look ‘strong’, not ‘thin’. Sure. Adriana Lima, a super-humanly attractive-looking woman, once gave an honest account of what was required: a liquid-only diet, twice-daily workouts and – the real clincher – giving up drinking water for 12 hours before the show. Well, we don’t live in a world that accepts that any more, let alone celebrates that.
Is it any wonder that those of us who have never and will never fit a sample size have felt irrelevant to the fashion industry for their whole lives?
For so long, the clothes that were considered fashion were designed to be worn on only the thinnest, whitest bodies available and they were all about how they looked, rather than how they felt. Is it any wonder that those of us who have never and will never fit a sample size have felt irrelevant to the fashion industry for their whole lives? I’m talking about generations of women who, one way or another, twisted and squished and enhanced and squashed their bodies to fit the clothes on offer.
And now slowly the tide is turning. Flat shoes are okay. High-waisted is in. The women on the awards shows red carpet no longer all look like they’re about to pass out. Even the greatest perpetrator of ‘thin is in’ fashion, Victoria’s Secret, has rebranded itself as a shop that now sells ‘what women want’, rather than ‘what men want to look at.’ Life is hard, working from home is bigger than ever, the outside world remains a threat and people need soothing any way they can get it. Is it any wonder that comfort has become the catch-call for our clothes in 2021?