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Is Purposeful Modesty the New Power Dress?

By Renée Batchelor

Model Coco Rocha for the Batsheva Pre-Fall 2019 collection.
 
Alexei Hay
Model Coco Rocha for the Batsheva Pre-Fall 2019 collection.

It started with an Instagram image. While browsing through my discover feed I chanced upon an image of a dress that defied categorisation. Like one of those ’80s party dresses that were at once girlish and alluring, the high collar, puffed sleeve and longer length were a nod to modest fashion mashed up with a prairie-style dress — but there was something more there. This dress was fun and brought a fresh feeling of excitement, invoking a certain sense of wistful nostalgia, but also devil-may-care boldness in its purposeful modesty. Devoid of sex appeal in the traditional sense — this was a dress for a woman, designed by a woman. The man- repeller of dresses if you will. And it showed.

I discovered that the particular dress was designed by New York-based Batsheva Hay, who was a finalist of the Vogue and CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) Fashion Fund in 2018. Under her Batsheva line, which retails both on her online store and on matchesfashion.com, she does custom designs as well, mining vintage fabrics and even craft material to whip up her whimsical creations. As a foil to their girlishness, Hay often styles the dresses with tough, lace-up boots or even sneakers. I was hooked and, several Instagram DMs later, had ordered one in holographic lilac lamé. (Hay sells many dresses on social media and the transaction is surprisingly easy.) This was a dress you either loved or hated: there was no in between.

Batsheva Hay modelling her own SS19 dress for Batsheva.
Batsheva Hay modelling her own SS19 dress for Batsheva.

Another cult designer making waves as of late has been former model Susie Cave who started the line The Vampire’s Wife with partners. With its signature silhouette of three quarter length sleeves, a modest neckline and angle-grazing lengths, with just a touch of frills at the sleeves and hemline, this was elegant and girlish with subtle nods to Victoriana — minus the frippery. Seen on everyone from actresses to the artistic set (Jennifer Aniston and Felicity Jones have worn them), there was something enchanting about these darkly romantic dresses.

And the fact that there is a growing demand for these dresses, is more than a commentary on changing tastes. Circe Henestrosa, a fashion curator and the head of the school of fashion in LASALLE College of the Arts says, “In order for fashion to exist, change needs to be present, and this is the reflection of a change in society. Garments are very powerful tools for socio-cultural interpretation. This style only shows how women want to express themselves today.”

A campaign image from The Vampire’s Wife.
A campaign image from The Vampire’s Wife.

Meredith Markworth-Pollack, the costume designer for television show “Dynasty”, who has been praised for her inventive costuming on past shows like “Hart of Dixie” and “Reign” and also “Gossip Girl”, believes this resurgence comes from a direct association to ’80s fashion. “We’ve seen the influence of ’80s fashion on the runways for the past couple of seasons. They are on [the] one hand, conservative and somewhat primitive, yet with details of oversized shoulders or ruffles, and bold prints, they read eccentric, smart, and fashion savvy,” says Markworth-Pollack.

And it’s not just cult brands that are catering to this need for an almost eccentric, defiant glamour. Valentino’s recent Spring couture show in Paris was a triumph of beauty and craftsmanship, and though conceived by a male designer, Pierpaolo Piccioli, his audience, including a crying Celine Dion, was visibly moved. She reportedly told Piccioli, “You have given women back their beauty.” The dresses in particular, in rich colours and sumptuous fabrics were transporting in their beauty and unapologetic glamour, with many pieces possessing that bewitching blend of modesty, elegance and quirkiness.

Looks from Valentino’s Spring 2019 Couture show.
Looks from Valentino’s Spring 2019 Couture show.

There is much to be said about designers who design with women in mind — just note the collective sighs of despondency when designer Phoebe Philo left the helm at Celine. “The old Celine was a pioneer in this area with a proposal of a softer look for busy women who were on the go and wanted to look cool and well dressed — so did Chloé,” says Henestrosa. While it’s hard to draw a direct connection to the #metoo movement, there is a sense that women are starting to dress more for themselves and connecting with the designers that give them that feeling, no matter their gender. Markworth-Pollack has slightly conflicting feelings about this idea agreeing that there is a movement towards non-conforming dress, but also not wanting to shame those who want to be overtly sexual in their clothing choices. “I do think there is a push in women’s power dressing to be unafraid to appear as ‘non-sexual’ or ‘not dressing for men’. However, at the same time, I think women should free to dress how they please, and if that means cleavage and skin at work, then so be it,” she says.

Ultimately the power dress should be a symbol of both femininity and choice. “If you feel like showing some skin one day — great. If you want to wear a pussy-bow tie blouse and an ankle-length skirt the next day — power to you. It’s what you feel the best in, not what you feel like you should be wearing,” says Markworth-Pollack.

And while the power dress may not be seen as a conventional work uniform — with pants and skirt suits usually dominating this realm — there is nothing to suggest that they are any less good at conveying the idea of competence. In fact the whole idea of power dressing has coincided with significant historical milestones. “Power dressing was introduced by Chanel in the ’20s and later by Yves Saint Laurent with Le Smoking suit in the ’70s. As the role of women in society changes, so does fashion. For example, these two periods of time are linked to the first wave of feminism in the 1920s, [as] in the case of Chanel, and later on, the sexual liberation of the ’70s for Saint Laurent,” says Henestrosa. She points out that power suits of the ‘80s — replete with big shoulder pads — came about at a time when the financial markets and Wall Street were powerful symbols of wealth. “The emergence of a bigger working force of women appeared in society at the time. This was a time when women reached high power roles, which previously were intended for men across all sectors,” says Henestrosa.

As to whether the suit is outdated or not, wholly depends on each individual. Perhaps it may work for Angela Merkel, but for many women, fitting themselves into a pantsuit simply does not work. Markworth-Pollack points out that dress codes were historically created by men, and she would like to see the end of them in work environments. “I’m not saying I personally believe a lawyer should show up to court in ripped jeans, but if that’s who you are and you feel like you do your best work dressed as yourself — then who should stop you?” says Markworth-Pollack.