the subversive power of hyper-feminine fashion

In a culture increasingly averse to gender codes, girlish aesthetics feel more rebellious than ever.

by Hannah Ongley
Mar 15 2016, 3:05pm

simone roacha fall/winter 16. photography jason lloyd-evans.

Last week the internet got pissed at Beyoncé for daring to say that giving birth to Blue Ivy was the proudest moment of her career. Granted, it was Bey's first interview in two years, and people were likely analyzing every word of what was supposed to be a brief interview rather than a manifesto on modern womanhood. But damned if you do, damned if you don't. Women are frequently attacked for embracing traditionally feminine "accomplishments" as if femininity and feminism are somehow mutually exclusive. Often, in reality, they're inextricably connected. At her fall/winter 16 show last month, Simone Rocha wrote a dark poem about motherhood that demanded to be analyzed.

"Baptism, birth, rebirth, Victorian dress, mess.
Unraveling, reweaving, restrain, restricting, strict.
Falling apart at the seams.
Tailored tulle, tinsel tweed, female form, adorn, adorned.
Adorned with embellished breast, I need rest.
Swaddled, wrapping, enveloping, smothering, mothering."

In a climate when gender and subversion, in the same sentence, normally conjure a shattering of the line between masculine and feminine, Rocha's collection wasn't just radical because the poem was slightly creepy. The young designer has always played with a twisted brand of femininity, injecting a punk spirit into the traditional girl code. Rocha, along with contemporaries like Ryan Lo, Molly Goddard, and (to a slightly lesser extent) Adam Selman and Sandy Liang, have built entire brands around fantasy. As we said at Lo's fall/winter 16 show, the designer "was born to spin blossom-colored fantasy worlds out of tulle and sweet thoughts." Rocha was certainly toying with tulle long before the anonymous designer behind anti-gender brand 69 coined the term "non-demographic." Yet the current celebration of all things binary-breaking has added another subversive facet to their overtly feminine fantasies.

Ryan Lo fall/winter 16. Photography Jason Lloyd-Evans.

If Rocha is London's queen of aggressive femininity, Goddard is its princess. "Maybe it's a bit weird, but I still sometimes go into Baby Gap and look at the clothes — they are so good," the 27-year-old said a few months after her spring/summer 16 outing. A bit weird, sure — a bit ominous maybe, given the insatiable hunger for youth and ever-younger looking models. But Goddard is one of an increasing number of young designers opting to street-cast their collections. Last season's diverse army of real girls stood stoically in peach, and apricot, and non-pink organza before breaking form to the sound of "Sunchyme" by Dario G. "I looked at old couture shows, Mugler in the 90s, Galliano, Dior, and I really wanted the presentation to feel like that. I wanted the girls to really enjoy wearing the clothes and to feel comfortable," Goddard told us last month. The designer's couture sensibilities and slow fashion ethos make a strong argument that fantasies can last. Take, for instance, the hundreds of yards of luxurious taffeta hand-sewn and hand-gathered in a single dress, almost literally anchoring her model to the ground.

Molly Goddard fall/winter 16. Photography Jamie Stoker.

As much as these designers seem anomalies in a society increasingly averse to strict gender codes, they're also a product of it. Yes, sexism is still omnipresent, rampant, and terrible. And while you'd still get funny looks for rocking up to a desk job at Goldman Sachs in an organza prom dress, a woman can in theory be taken seriously if she's not wearing a suit. She can also be taken seriously — at least if she isn't Kim Kardashian ­— while celebrating her body. This is something Rocha's woman does so nonchalantly it almost goes unobserved. When your language is sheer tulle and organza, freeing a few nipples is pretty inevitable. Every see-through dress the designer uploads to her Instagram account is quietly subverting the social media platform's notoriously antiquated view of female anatomy. Though sometimes the middle finger to social media sexism is more obvious. In 2014, Rihanna gave Selman a taste of viral fame when she wore her longtime costume designer's sheer, sparkly, baby pink "naked dress" to the CFDA awards ceremony. The gown sparked a debate not just about women's liberation via wardrobe but about the extent to which women's bodies are acceptable on social media. RiRi had her own Instagram account deleted a few months earlier after posting topless photos from her shoot with French magazine Lui.

The whole #FreeTheNipple debate, of course, argues that nudity is not inherently sexual. But that isn't to say overtly sexual undertones don't penetrate the fabric that Rocha and her contemporaries work with — the spring/summer 16 collection the designer worked on while pregnant was inspired by the photographs of bondage-obsessed erotic photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, the inspiration manifesting itself in belt-like black straps over clouds of baby pink tulle. But the effect is to empower rather than objectify. It's said that women dress for other women (and for themselves), and there's not much of a male gaze present in a dress that smothers the body in 30 feet of puffy tulle. Nor in the unapologetically youthful looks Goddard shows on her street-cast armies of grown-ass women that have more in common with Rihanna than with the titular character in Nabokov's Lolita. Youth is fetishized, but womanhood is celebrated too. Many of the more girlish pieces feel like a rejection of the Madonna-whore complex (a woman is either a virgin or a slut) and an endorsement of the somehow-still-crazy idea that women can contain multitudes. See also: the feminist punk spirit captured in the baby doll dress and Dr. Martens combo of 90s Riot Grrrls, and the reclaimed, subversive femininity celebrated by modern girl-rebels like Arvida Byström.

Prada fall/winter 16. Photography Jason Lloyd-Evans.

"I love playing with something that's typically associated with an idea and turning it on its head," New York City-based designer Sandy Liang told us at her hillside country-flavored fall/winter 16 outing this season. Her girl doesn't dress for boys either — rather she is one. Supreme skaters on the LES and Toronto's rap god Drake have both worked their way into her recent collections. Miuccia Prada has always poked at what lies beneath the surface of conventional beauty, most recently working dainty keys, roses, and miniature diaries into a collection that celebrated the sexual complexity and multi-facetedness of womanhood. Gender isn't a binary, and women have more than two parts also. So, on that note, do men. Maybe feminine aesthetics are just that: aesthetics, and not really anchored to any particular gender. There are few things more punk, after all, than a man in a gauzy tulle tutu. 


Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Jason Lloyd-Evans

Molly Goddard
adam selman
ryan lo
simone rocha
sandy liang