Main image courtesy of Kenzo, Rick Owens, Mugler and Stephane Cardinale (Corbis via Getty Images)

How catsuits became one of AW21's top trends

Catsuits are no longer just a caricature of femininity. In 2021, they’re a newfound symbol of defiant sexuality in film, fashion and music.

by Alice May Stenson
29 April 2021, 6:53am

Main image courtesy of Kenzo, Rick Owens, Mugler and Stephane Cardinale (Corbis via Getty Images)

Are you even a popstar now if you don't own that Mugler one-piece? Not since the days of 90s-era Naomi baring little more than leopard spots in an Azzedine Alaïa catsuit has there been so much sartorial pussy power in the worlds of fashion, music and film. With the Gossip Girl reboot, female-fronted superhero films like Black Widow and the rumoured Batgirl, and pop stars such as Beyoncé, Kali Uchis and Dua Lipa making bodysuits their go-to stage outfits — all-in-ones have recently become a must-have in costume departments and styling wardrobes. Once confined to dominatrix lairs, the garment is taking on new meaning in conversations around femininity, inclusivity and sexuality. And now fashion designers have taken note, too, with the catsuit emerging as one of the biggest trends on the AW21 runways. 

At Mugler, Casey Cadwallader has made the catsuit one of his signatures, bringing Thierry Mugler’s ethos of larger-than-life femininity up to date. “Many catsuits from the archive are opaque and more of an S&M vibe. What I aimed for was techno-sport lingerie. Hosiery and lingerie tend to be fragile whereas sportswear provides indestructible and more reactive qualities,” Casey adds. “The catsuit allows comfort in a very daring capacity. There's a certain level of confidence and fearlessness needed to wear it because you are showing your shape completely. But at the same time, it makes you feel reassured because everything's contained, nothing's going to rip or jiggle.” Little wonder pop stars love them. Their elastic qualities lend well to quick-change performances, allowing singers to easily squat and spider-crawl without the risk of a Marilyn Monroe upskirting crisis. 

“I want you to feel uplifted as soon as you close the zipper. It doesn’t matter your size – whether you have a big waist or small breasts, it will adapt to the body and flatter any figure,” he says.  “It’s a full bodysuit but you're perceived as naked. That is the dichotomy that makes them so interesting – you're actually entirely clothed and protected yet appear uncovered.” 

His most recent show saw crystal-spangled bodysuits dazzle under dim lights, their black boning and nude illusion panels worn by Pose star Dominique Jackson, Bella Hadid and Euphoria’s Hunter Schafer as they stalked like panthers, contorting and somersaulting down the catwalk – actions usually reserved for comic book superheroes. The Mugler muse, of course, is exactly that: a fantastical hero — except now with much broader notions of race, sexuality, body shape or age.

Casey has forged the one-piece into a feminine armour at the French house. It’s probably why we’ve seen Miley Cyrus slip into a Mugler catsuit post-divorce, Yseult radiate body positivity wearing one, and Megan Thee Stallion brazenly rap about genitalia in a custom Mugler bodysuit. It feels like a world away from the past decades when catsuit-clad musicians like Britney Spears and the Spice Girls were stifled by sexist contractual rights – the sort that felt about as restrictive as their costumes did. In noughties pop culture, the catsuit was seldom a symbol of empowerment, but rather one of mass-marketed sexuality. Today, however, it feels defiant for a generation of women confidently reclaiming their sexuality on their own terms. 

“I want you to feel uplifted as soon as you close the zipper. It doesn’t matter your size – whether you have a big waist or small breasts, it will adapt to the body and flatter any figure.”

Indeed, catsuits — despite conforming to the body — have long had nonconformist associations. As far back as the 60s, sculpted design first gained traction among daredevil bikers for its ability to protect — and this held intrinsic ties to gimps and glamazons in the BDSM-scene before being adopted by the decade’s fashion designers, such as André Courrèges’ and Pierre Cardin. Those designers made the catsuit, along with the miniskirt, the futuristic ‘Space Age’ look and – like today’s designers – used them as a symbol of a world on the cusp of a sexual revolution.

Think of Jane Fonda in Barbarella, or Brigitte Bardot in Girl on a Bike. The bodysuit’s concurrent rise with late 60s burn-your-bra feminism ignited a stark discourse around misogyny; from terms ‘glamour puss’ to ‘sex kitten’, there had always been a licentious cross-over between felines and the feminine. By the time Catwoman first emerged on cinema screens in 1966, or indeed that time Britney did it again, the catsuit had become a symbol of female hyper-sexuality. 

But that was then. This year, when cinemas start rolling again, Black Widow and The Matrix 4 will hit the big screen. The original films featured erotic, oil-like costumes and it’s no coincidence that the catsuit’s current buzz is due, in part, to the return of OG protagonists. Across the Marvel franchise, an influx of female directors such as Chloe Zhao, Emerald Fennell and Cate Shortland are upending gender divisions behind-the-scenes, and in front of the camera the female hero is finally getting more diverse representation in upcoming movies, including Eternals and Zatanna.

“Today, the costume feels defiant for a generation of women confidently reclaiming their sexuality on their own terms.”

Fashion is changing its outlook on the garment, too. For AW21, designers have been continuing to toy with it in myriad ways. Prada expanded the idea of a comfortable catsuit for AW21 with abstract jersey numbers that satiate the pandemic-induced craving for loungewear. Heavily-branded logomania was rife at Givenchy where models came cloaked to the neck in monogram GG-motifs. KNWLS – formerly Charlotte Knowles – took to the wild side with cheetah-print bodies and Rick Owens unfurled a dystopian spin — 80s-esque shoulder pads emulating a dramatic, immortalised shrug. The garment’s Space Age heyday could be seen in Pierre-Louis Auvray’s mesh ensembles laced with galactic patterns and peculiar martian exoskeletons, and Maximilian’s Swinging Sixties-themed collection. 

In New York, LaQuan Smith is having a feline moment with supple velvets and svelte mesh one-pieces, which articulate that very femme-fatale sexiness. It’s why his catsuits are slipping into celebrity wardrobes everywhere — earlier this year a black number was spotted on Jordan Alexander on the Gossip Girl reboot set, while Kylie Jenner wore another to Justin Bieber’s album launch party last month. “What inspires me the most about catsuits is the glamour — it stems from a superhero and villain concept. Within that, there’s this empowerment where women can be strong; women can be dominating,” LaQuan says. “It’s about celebrating women through shaping the hips and making them feel unapologetically sexy. I want to redefine how confidence appears,” he says.

Through signature cut-out shapes, LaQuan is ushering the catsuit into a new “feel-good, look-good” chapter. “The thing with latex is that it gets associated with dominatrixes. To expand on new ideas, you have to introduce textures like lace and velvet. These fabrics are homey enough for your daily wardrobe.”

As humanity recovers from the global pandemic, we’re seeing gloomy shadows clear the way for optimism and expressions of sexuality. Over at Kenzo, catsuits are saturated in vivid botanical prints while Yuhan Wang opts for pastel hues and lace trimmings as primary choice. Both imply a brighter, future-facing take on the garment.

Right now, the catsuit is as much about feeling comfortable in your own skin as it is rejecting predatory pre-conceptions. The one-piece can even feel protective, its tight fit eliciting a sense of security and control. “The return of bodycon is the DNA of responsiveness,” LaQuan concludes, suggesting that form-fitted clothing is a reaction to uncertainty — a sartorial hug we all need right now. 

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