Models stomped down the runway in flowing red-and-white cloth that both obscure and reveal their bodies at this years New York Fashion Week: a suffragette’s outfit here, cushions sewn onto the front of a dress there. Based on Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Vaquera’s show took visuals from the television series and reimagined them as a collection, bringing Atwood’s chilling dystopia into the context of modern political and societal issues. The source material is, at first glance, jarring in its duality, leaving me wondering what exactly makes clothing ‘empowering’ as opposed to ‘objectifying’? This is part of a far wider discussion of womanhood and sexuality.
When I look at the way fashion has developed over the last few years one thing becomes apparent: whether we are aware of it or not, we are choosing to dress more modestly – and following fashion by doing so. High necklines, palazzo pants, maxi and midi hemlines, boyfriend styles have all become stylish choices as opposed to the body-con fashions of the past. Now, the word ‘modest’ itself draws up unpleasant connotations of feminine worth based on sexuality and the amount of skin a woman’s clothes reveal. The question of religion is another aspect to this discussion, with controversial bans of full face-veils in effect in some European countries. Modest dressing might be imposed on women as a way of control, yet it might also be a personal and immensely comforting decision to take control of how much of your body you want to show. This is not a straightforward debate.
Isn’t this a re-appropriation of what was meant to oppress: finding sexiness in clothing that might once have been seen as frumpy, even constraining? Isn’t it a conscious, personal decision to hide the body from view or, conversely, present it? And yet I am still confronted by the pesky thought that a more modest style of dress might be an internalised equation of feminine worth with sexual purity. But, on the other hand, putting the feminine body on view might be done to the benefit of others, at the expense of personal comfort. This is the dilemma that Vaquera addresses with the Handmaid’s dress and the one that we as women encounter in our day-to-day lives.
Ultimately, these questions relate to how women are viewed in society and how their clothing is an integral part of that discussion. Vaquera was not alone at fashion week in pushing the boundaries of what fashion stands for and how it may add to the wider discussion of femininity, gender, and sexuality. Eckhaus Latta featured pregnant model Maia Ruth Lee in their show, her baby bump the focal point. This created a place for pregnancy in the context of high fashion.
The Handmaids’ dresses from the television series were a powerful choice because of what they stand for. Dresses that, in the series, had the purpose of classifying and oppressing women in the final stage of tyrannical patriarchy were reclaimed: their symbolic meaning subverted. And while their use as a protest tool is, on the one hand, a warning of what the world may be moving towards, it is, on the other, a firm assertion of female agency, a banner to rally to.