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6-min read

Post-Brexit Fashion: Dressing for the Great British Identity Crisis

Designers, stuck with a fashion season that falls just weeks before Brexit-day, to show clothes that will be worn in its aftermath, are extrapolating.

New York Times

Updated:September 18, 2019, 10:41 AM IST
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Post-Brexit Fashion: Dressing for the Great British Identity Crisis
Models walk the runway at the Richard Quinn spring 2020 show in London on September 16, 2019. (Ellie Smith/The New York Times)

What does it mean to be British? What does that look like? There’s really no way around these questions for anyone in the United Kingdom right now; anyone existing in the shadow of the maybe-final-the-PM-swears-it-is-so Brexit deadline of October 31. They overshadow everything else, even climate activism. Banksy’s “Devolved Parliament,” a portrait of the House of Commons filled by chimpanzees, is about to go on show for the first time ahead of a scheduled auction. Bankers are being told to have overnight bags packed in case they suddenly have to relocate to Frankfurt.

And designers? Designers, stuck with a fashion season that falls just weeks before B-day, to show clothes that will be worn in its aftermath, are extrapolating.

The point of fashion is to crystallise identity: to give individuals the tools to express who they are. But if you don’t know who you are, because who you are today (what you are part of) and who you may be in a month (what you are not part of) are different, the most you can do is provide succour for getting through the moment; for helping to process.

There are no simple answers, as Jonathan Anderson knows. Hence the main accessory of the JW Anderson collection: a detachable Möbius strip/bikini top of diamanté rope that can be tied on and taken off at will, curving round and round on itself endlessly, taking you in circles.

It came over long, draped, jersey dresses surrounded at the hip by a thick circlet of rhinestone belt, one sleeve missing, the other sliced open to reveal the arm and billowing out behind. It came over shirts over harem pants; under a flowing silver superhero cape; mirrored in circular cutouts on the hips of dresses or swirled just above the hems of trench coats; embedded among super-fringed shawls and mohair slip dresses.

Anderson name-checked Canadian artist Liz Magor as an influence, and the way she uses her work to make you rethink themes and objects of everyday life (shelter, history, survival). But if there was a better — or more glamorous — stand-in for the feedback loop of self-recrimination, “what if’s” and “not me’s” swirling around the ether, it’s hard to imagine.

Still, there’s been a lot of symbolism going on. The biggest trend of the week was a silhouette that was the equivalent of a really gorgeous … tent. A safe space made of fabric in which to take refuge from the day. To hide not the body politic but just the body (Hussein Chalayan even wove tentpoles into his crisscross topographic chemises). Fashion often resorts to the most obvious form of dress when protection is involved: the power-shouldered military suit! These new volumes were, in many ways, a more interesting proposition.

Hemlines were dropped and often dusted the floor, trailing behind like a train or a memory; sleeves extended past the wrists to obscure the hands or got blown up to inflated, absurd proportions; there were acres of fabric involved. For a spring/summer season, there was almost no focus on exposure.

Instead there were dresses that took up space, as Richard Malone wrote of his ruched and pieced-together and highly constructed evening wear, jutting past shoulders and curving grandly to the side, inspired by conversations with his grandmother about the working class and demanding recognition (he took his bow in a T-shirt bearing a four-letter word followed by the name “Boris”). Dresses that provided a kind of cloudlike cover, billowing around the body like mist, at Roksanda.

Dresses that folded narrative over fantasy, as in Erdem Moralioglu’s ode to Tina Modotti, the Italian actress-turned-photographer-turned-activist, complete with classic Victorian silhouettes, high neck, pie-crust collars, in high-octane floral prints; long, louche silk pants and silk tunics; elaborately fringed shawls (fringe is also a trend); and a triple-tiered evening gown in emerald brocade — all of it a very elaborate, lusciously tinted cover-up.

There were exceptions, to be sure: Christopher Kane, whose “Ecosexual” show was one of the few that dealt head-on with the environmental crisis, thanks to silk-screen prints of wildflower fields, and LBDs (little bright dresses) with silicone inserts that looked sort of like pervy Georgia O’Keeffe orchids.

But even Victoria Beckham, former acolyte of the body-con frock, had about-faced to dresses that hang like artist’s smocks, floating from collarbone to calf with no restrictions. And when there weren’t dresses, there were layers: turtlenecks under button-downs under 1970s wide-lapel blazers in houndstooth check atop flared trousers or below-the-knee box-pleated skirts.

Layers! Get it? So many: of interpretation, decisions, potential outcomes. That Beckham made them look less heavy than cool is to her credit.

Though they are rarely worn as lightly, or with as much nuance, as in Simone Rocha’s organza-meets-lace-meets-cotton-eyelet-meets-raffia-meets-sequins-meets-Delft-pottery (meets more, but you get the idea) mille-feuilles of coats and dresses and cropped paperboy pants, rooted in time-faded Irish tradition and myth, as well as the interiors of grand homes. Generous in scale, human in detail, they were textural, in all meanings of the word.

And they tapped into a strain of historical revisionism oft-beloved of fashion but more freighted now that we are at another turning point, that perhaps took most obvious form in Riccardo Tisci’s Burberry. It’s been a year since Tisci’s arrival at what has always been positioned — what he is continuing to position — as the ultimate British lifestyle house. That’s a big responsibility given the current circumstances; a big claim to take on.

Given the stakes, Tisci had spent, he said backstage after the show, the first two collections establishing what he called “the alphabet” of the house; this was the first attempt to put the variables together to write its new story. So using his letters — A is for animal print; S is for scarves; T is for trench; V is for Victorian beginnings, and so on — he collaged them into a tale of oppositions: between the queen and the rebels, aristocracy and youth.

There was less beige and more gray jersey. Instead of the Burberry horse came a new silk menagerie of wildcats and big game. Shirts sported Burberry logo collars and scarves across the shoulders and sleeves. Hemlines bubbled up and turned under so the blouse became a jacket. There were a lot of high/low skirts cut to the thighs in front, sweeping the floor in back. Some fanciness, some white-collar polish, some loose rugby shorts, some club-kid gear. Black and white graffitilike “streetwear zebra stripes” (his words) mixed it up with black and white gingham. At the end, sheer leg-of-mutton sleeve lace gowns shadowed ribbed tank tops or black bodysuits.

It was clear, it was referential, it had incrementally progressed, and yet it still felt like looking at a paint-by-numbers project. The common denominators are too simplistic; the understanding of inheritance too superficial. Richard Quinn plays with many of the same tropes of royalty and punk, but he does it with more humor and less respect — steroidal roses and ruffles over latex; power-grasping Cromwell robes in explosive lilacs. The result is more niche but also more fun, even as it responds to what Quinn called in his show notes, “the nightmare of reality.”

If anything has become clear over the last many months it is that what it means to be British today is full of complications and deep-seated emotions. Full of stories written by the victors that maybe need to be rewritten, and fear and passion and hope about what was and what will be. Strafed by the awareness of multiplicities. It demands a new expression. Perhaps that can’t happen until we know exactly what is going to happen. In the meantime, the identity crisis is starting to develop its own look.

Vanessa Friedman c.2019 The New York Times Company

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