“A garment that makes movement difficult is not a pretty garment.” Of all the reflections, analyses, insights, advice and aphorisms left by Elizabeth Hawes (1903-1971), this is possibly the least remembered to date. And yet it couldn’t be more true. picks it up It’s Still Spinach (1954), continuation or second part of Fashion Is Spinach, that visionary volume from 1938 in which the American designer, chronicler and activist already referred to fashion in the same critical terms in which we speak of it today. A dart so accurate that she keeps hitting the target. “Never buy a garment without having tried it on before carrying out all the actions that you are going to do with it on,” she warned. And then she recommended: driving. Or fixing your hairstyle. Or bending down to reach that damn bottom drawer. If Elizabeth Hawes had just honed her eyesight a bit more in her forecasts—clairvoyance was not lacking, not in clothing—she would surely have included the unmarked fitted button-down polo shirt, the skirt with swirling godets. mid-calf, sensible footwear. Indeed: movement will set you free.
The one of the actress, businesswoman and guru Gwyneth Paltrow in the courts of Park City (Utah) for a week, at the end of last March, is one of the defining and definitive images of the year in terms of fashion. A masterclass in style that, surprise —or perhaps not—, gave the verdict of approval to one of the recurring themes in the collections for this autumn-winter then recently seen in the main weeks of prêt-à-porter: liberating mobility. “Here beauty is not determined by aesthetics, but by action. The garments are representations of the beauty of reality ”, confirmed the Miuccia Prada-Raf Simons tandem in the now usual statement of disclaimer after her show. To her loose-fit cotton-knit jersey combinations at ease and skirt with volume or straight (long or mini), the very flat shoe, they got an instant legion of admirers. The same as the spartan geometry dresses with print/photocopied trompe l’oeil by Loewe (what a twist on Jonathan Anderson’s script after several seasons of impractical surrealism), the very fluid pleated pieces by Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski at Hermès or the swinging midi skirts at the hip of Catherine Holstein in Khaite. “It’s about feeling comfortable, and that’s also empowering,” says the new hero of quiet luxury.
The allusion to the latest favorite expression of fashion is not in vain. Formal, chromatic and advertising subtleties aside, freedom of movement and comfort are not only other values of expression of the rich who flaunt their clothing discretion, but are also part of the very DNA of such a long-standing concept, which sinks its roots in sportswear genuinely american. An ideal advocated since the late 1920s by the American elites who dressed in department stores like Lord & Taylor, fed up with the glamorous dictatorship in Paris. “Most of my ideas come from trying to solve certain problems on my own. I like being able to zip up my zippers and make do with the hooks on my own. What I need is a dress with which to cook dinner and leave the kitchen to receive the guests”, wrote Claire McCardell in What I Shall Wear? The What, Where, When and How Much of Fashion (1956). Like Hawes, she also believed that what the woman of her time (of any time) needed were garments that would allow them to function without squeezing and tugging, rather on the street than in society halls. The popover dress, a foretaste of Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap dress (crossed and adjustable for convenience by a belt of the same fabric), served to prove the theory from 1942.
Freedom of movement in clothing has always been, for that matter, an old female longing. “A Pre-Raphaelite woman is active and independent, she not only enjoys mobility in the way she dresses, but she also claims it,” proclaimed Mary Eliza Haweis in The Art of Dress (1879). The British artist, writer and suffragette echoed the claims that, in full Victorian repression, advocated naturalness inspired by the Greco-Roman clothing tradition, hence those artistic dresses (also known as aesthetic, healthy or rational) conceived as political spaces of both physical and symbolic liberation and whose commercial trail can be traced at the beginning of the 20th century from the Austrian Emilie Flöge to the British Lucile, passing through the French Paul Poiret or the Franco-Spanish couple Henriette Nigrin-Mariano Fortuny. The same precept will later inspire Madeleine Vionnet to cut fabrics on the bias and Chanel to appropriate certain prerogatives of men’s clothing, sports and the working classes. The American cultural hegemony imposed after the Second World War, however, has made the story its own, which since McCardell has resonated with the Halston, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren or Michael Kors labels.
“I think that many of the global ideas that prevail today come from American fashion. Claire McCardell started the sportswear taking elements of men’s workwear to apply them to a dress, and its impact did not reach only the Americans, that in Paris the couture houses did not take their eyes off it”, says Tory Burch, whose autumn-winter 2023-24 collection pays homage to the creator of the popover and the monastic dress (the designer is also the author of the prologue of the reissue of What I Shall Wear? published by Abrahams Books in the heat of the exhibition In America: An Anthology of Fashion, from the Met Costume Institute, in August 2022). In The Row, the Olsen twins say amen. Of course, the last word is from a Paris-born Brit: the long-awaited first collection under Phoebe Philo’s name is upon us (sometime in September). And if anyone can boast of knowing what women need to move freely for almost two decades, it’s her.
Everyone with a sweatshirt and ‘leggings’: why sportswear is prevailing over traditional garments
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