February 22, 2011

Beauty Must Suffer?

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If the New York and London fashion weeks had a soundtrack so far, it would not be a Diplo remix, or a Gaga anthem or a Bob Dylan throwback. Though those are all good guesses. No, it would just be the sound of swishing fabric looped behind a long exhale. Fashion was easy this week. Skirts are cut long and loose, pants are low-slung and breezy, dresses don’t touch the body save for a dropped waist. From the swashbuckling florals at Erdem in London to the floating tunics at Anna Sui in New York, everything has been relaxed, with a louche wink.

One of the predominant trends that is still being thrown around is inspiration via active wear. Calvin Klein did baseball-styled sweatshirts in gleaming alpacas in New York while Richard Nicoll sent chiffon sweatpants and silk track jackets down the catwalk in London. Although these looks seemed newly fresh and sumptuous, this is simply the most recent incarnation of a long history of relaxed dressing.

I’ll play the history back with the fast-forward on: Chanel liberated women from corsets by offering dresses in men’s underwear jersey in the 1920s; sport and exercise crazes gave way to more active styles by the 1950s; spandex and lycra became a staple of both active wear and fashion by the 1980s; and after 1980s workout wear and 1990s trashy grunge, we arrived at the year 2000.

The dawn of the new millennium brought about a new kind of comfort. Like the 1980s body-conscious Jane Fonda looks, this was not really about comfort; it was about sex. In 2001, L.A. label Juicy Couture launched the body-hugging velour tracksuit and never looked back. The suit consisted of a hooded sweatshirt and drawstring sweatpants in Miami-bright colors with a label that read “Made in the Glamorous USA.” That was exactly what people were looking for — comfort disguised under the cache of sexy glamour and, frankly, cache. As the craze exploded, it became not just acceptable but even chic to wear sweats outside of the gym.

This fad faded but the garments lingered, and they are still in production now, ten years later. The truth is, comfort will always be enticing, whether it is trending or not. Comfort is associated with pleasure, with a pain-free insouciance. Clothing should just make people happy, right?

Not entirely. Clothing shapes our posture, our behaviors, our interactions. It can define an individual’s mood as much as it can define the space around them. As the saying goes — and I quote the timeless TV show Boy Meets World — “Life’s tough, get a helmet.” If we agree that life should be tough, to some extent, then we should agree to all wear helmets. And in a sense, we already have. Neckties, tight skirts, rigid shoes: these are uniforms that make people act in appropriate ways.

In other words, shouldn’t our clothes make us suffer, just a bit? Do we feel more professional in a tie? Can the confines of a pencil skirt make us act a bit more stately? Is there something to be said for starchy work clothes that are tossed aside at the end of the day for relaxation’s sake, delineating a work/home border? Would soldiers stand at attention so briskly if they were dressed in a Metallica t-shirt and cut-offs?

We need garments that constrict us, that teach us to hold our spines straight and our chins up. But we need their opposite also, to create this tension. We need this new season too, a season of quiet release.

So onward fashion marches at her petty pace, this season walking ever more slowly, these casual cuts swathing her newly swaying swagger. And the beat goes on.

Original Author: Amelia Brown