“The interesting thing about fashion is that it really reflects society.” – Deborah Linton
It is common fashion knowledge that Coco Chanel hated mini skirts. She thought they were “just awful” and claimed that she didn’t know a single man who found them attractive. She also hated the sight of women’s knees so that might explain her strong, but ultimately erroneous, opinion. The style of skirt frequently pops up on catwalks and in stores every time the fashion industry decides it’s time to revisit mod.
In the 1960s Twiggy’s eyes and legs created the iconic mod look with spidery eyelashes and long, thin legs exposed to photographers and the world. Those legs, often folded around her, emerging from mini skirts and dresses, were a sign of rebellion and youth. Dior’s New Look with its yards and yards of fabric was left behind in the 50s.
In 2017, however, to successfully spot a style icon you must look for who is covered up.
A fashion-forward women of today might layer a dress over yoga leggings, button her blouse all the way to the top, or wear a light-weight maxi-dress while at the beach. No matter how she covers up, modesty as a style is in.
Always get a second opinion
I sat down with Deborah Linton, a former fashion journalist, current freelance journalist and tutor at Manchester Metropolitan University, to discuss this trend of mainstream modesty.
We began by taking a style trip back in time to reflect on how far fashion has come from the mini-skirts and tiny tops of the 2000s:
In looking back at where fashion was and how we got to the modesty prevalent today, Linton asks if the trend towards covering up simply part of the cycle of fashion. Is it a natural course correction from the brash and brazen noughties? Or could it actually reflect the politics and economics of the past few years? Or might it be both?
To recall noughties fashion simply think of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie – lots of tan and lots of skin. These two ladies can be held responsible for the pink Juicy Couture track suits, the barely there slip dresses in shimmering fabric, and the low, low waisted jeans that decked the celebrity magazines of the decade. Any rules about how, when, and where to show skin were tossed aside in favour of showing as much skin as possible.
And this exhibitionist style mandate was especially evident on the red carpet, done best by Jennifer Lopez and her green Versace dress. And as it turns out, that dress is what prompted the creation of Google Image Search due to the tidal wave of Google searches for photos of Jennifer Lopez’s bellybutton-grazing “neckline.”
Alas, there is only so much skin you can show before you’re nude. And the cycle of fashion turns to the next style.
Winter is coming…
This past December Vogue even went so far as to declare cleavage passé. While social media slated Vogue (and rightly so) for seeming to promote a thin, no-cleavage body type and deriding those with natural cleavage, Vogue must get some credit for identifying the modesty trend. In the offending article, “Desperately Seeking Cleavage” they wrote:
“Rejecting the stereotypes of gender has been brought sharply into focus, with the days of women as eye-candy, their sexuality positively smouldering rather than subtly played out, officially over.”
While the angle of the article was misguided – indeed it isn’t cleavage itself that is outré, rather it is the clothing we wore that put it on display – the point of the article, that skin is out and modesty is in, is legitimate.
Low-rise flared jeans of the noughties gave way to the skinny jeans that still dominate denim styles today. Micro tank tops turned into long t-shirts to layer over the skinny jeans. In the last few years those skinny jeans have become athletic wear, the t-shirts have become dresses, and now we layer dresses over roll-neck tops. And layering dresses over trousers is referencing the grunge look of the 90s; the cycle rolls along.
But fashion isn’t the only feature of modern culture that has gone through a transformation over the last 15 years. We’ve been through an economic crash and a recovery built on austerity policies. We’ve seen the Arab world revolt against dictators only to fall into chaos, causing a refugee crisis that contributed to Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump.
Is it merely coincidence that the cycle of fashion has synced itself with global trends, or are we covering up with clothing in response to these stressful changes?
“It could be reflective of the idea that women are looking to be taken more seriously and are taken more seriously.” – Deborah Linton
The feminism of the 1990s appeared to be focused on “frivolous” fashion, rather than forming a community to affect change. But in the last ten years feminism has found its way back into popular culture through strong female celebrities like Beyoncé and Emma Watson advocating its myriad benefits. The more popular and important feminism becomes the more women are demanding to, as Linton says, be taken seriously. And as the controversial Vogue piece pointed out, women as eye-candy is officially over.
Connections between fashion and current events can be drawn throughout history:
- the lipstick effect of the Great Depression of the 30s
- the Suffragette’s white dresses
- the very political and intricate designs of Marie Antoinette’s towering wigs
Clothing can be a powerful visual statement but discovering if fashion influences politics or politics influences fashion is a bit of a ‘chicken or the egg’ endless chase.
However, in looking at recent iterations of this phenomenon, the pussyhat for example, you cannot discount the importance of a new participant in this cyclical game: social media.
Instagram fashion stars have gone from blogging about the Gucci dupes they found at Zara to being sent free Gucci bags in exchange for a few Instagram photos. They used to lurk outside the shows at Fashion Week and now they’re invited to sit in the front row, Snapchatting their favourite looks to their millions of followers. Their own sartorial choices throughout each day, a different outfit for every show, is as documented in fashion media as the looks on the runways.
As was much discussed after the recent US presidential elections, social media has become an echo chamber and Instagram is no different from a Facebook feed full of political posts you already agree with. When you select Instagram accounts to follow you self-select into a style tribe, resulting in what Linton calls an “anything goes” approach to style resulting in 90s grunge-inspired dresses layered over trousers being just as fashionable as 30s-inspired pussy-bow blouses.
And right now, modesty is trending across all style tribes:
Yet the difference between Instagram style stars and the fashion industry should be elucidated as their relationship status is complicated, especially regarding who sets trends and who follows them. And when looking at modesty as a style trend Instagram might provide a useful rival to our real lives.
As Linton pointed out, the red carpet used to be the only place where you could show off your body, shaped and toned through miles of jogging and countless sun salutations, but thanks to Instagram that kind of display can be kept to perfectly produced photos on Instagram:
“High fashion can be the serious, or the public side, of how we really are and we can use Instagram to show off ourselves in bikinis. We don’t need to appear to dress so immodestly at every given opportunity because people are doing that on a daily basis, and we’re exposed to that on a daily basis, on Instagram.”
Could this be a permanent change to the cycle of fashion? Will Instagram save us from another decade of dressing in as little fabric as possible? According to Linton:
“I think it will do what fashion has always done and it will be cyclical.”
So, maybe don’t throw away anything – ever – and you’ll always be in style.
After the US election, before the inauguration and the protests it sparked, women were already looking to distance themselves from the style of the new First Lady, Melania, which is quite feminine and revealing in the tightness of the clothing she chooses. Vanity Fair went so far as to write “A Guide to ‘Melania Hair’ and How to Avoid It” after actress Olivia Wilde, formerly a hair twin to Melania, chopped her hair in to a long bob.
And the latest slate of Fashion Weeks saw designers rushing to screen print slogan t-shirts and adorning their models with pink pussyhats; fashion declared its allegiance to the #resist movement.
Maybe this time, spurred by the outrageous political climate of the last year, fashion will break out of its eternal cycle and we’ll continue to use our clothing to cover up from an American President and a society in general that demands that women put their bodies on display for commentary.
For now modesty is mainstream fashion, so keep hold of your high-waisted mom jeans and grandpa sweaters. We might need them for a while yet.