There is a zeitgeist which rainbows over and above fashion. That news ticker which runs through your head – I should buy a shoe with a chunkier heel, is gingham over, how many shirt buttons to undo? – is only half the story. The bigger picture, in which style expresses the big stuff – how optimistic we feel about the future, what “femininity” means at any moment, what we are nostalgic for – is usually swimming somewhere just out of focus in the background.
Pan out, right now, and this is what you find: fashion has tired of its ivory tower and fallen in love with reality. Fashion’s distillery usually filters the essence of the zeitgeist to create an idealised muse. The more physically impossible the proportions, the greater the power of the image to etch itself onto the pop cultural consciousness. (Think of the elongated elegance and exaggerated gestures of René Gruau’s illustrations of New Look Dior. Or Kim Kardashian in Givenchy.)
But this year, designers turned this upside down, switching their idolatry to the real world. The autumn/winter 2014 shows began in New York, where it was unseasonably cold, even for Manhattan in early February. And for once, we saw the actual winter climate we were dealing with outside the shows referenced on the catwalks. Unheard of, frankly, in New York, where I long ago lost count of the number of collections I have seen which nodded to winter by dint of, say, an elbow-length cashmere sleeve on a shift dress, worn bare-legged with sandals.
So it was striking to walk into Tommy Hilfiger’s show and see a catwalk piled with snow and dotted with fir trees, and even more surprising when the models were dressed sensibly for their surroundings. Parkas were layered over thick sweaters with warm flannel shirts beneath; sturdy boots came with chunky socks; beanies were paired with cosy scarves. And then there was the collection at Coach, where new designer Stuart Vevers presented the first-ever ready-to-wear in the brand’s 70-year history, and garnered rave reviews for coats with deep pockets and hoods, in rugged fabrics with chunky fastenings.
New York fashion week faced up to the weather. But it was Paris, of all places – city of couture, of fashion fantasies – that embraced the humdrum, pedestrian details that mark out real-life dressing from perfect-life dressing, and put them on the catwalk. This began at Balenciaga, where the pre-catwalk parade of immaculate actors, who made the walk from car to front row holding nothing but a phone, were made to seem stiff and old-fashioned by models who sashayed the catwalk carrying not one, but three bags. Here was Alexander Wang, a young American designer, bringing to the most historic of Parisian houses a haute take on a familiar evening rush-hour look: handbag, gym bag, overspill bag of milk and eggs and something for supper.
The following day, at Christian Dior, Raf Simons radicalised the catwalk aesthetic by folding coats over the arms of the models, mirroring a look you see everywhere on the street but – until that moment – never at fashion’s high table. In the explanatory notes printed for the audience, Simons said he wanted to “offer another reality, another function. This season is more about the pace of the city. I’m attracted to the urban world.”
The barricades between fashion as it looks on a pedestal and fashion as it looks for pedestrians are coming down. The practicalities that impact on the way women shop and dress, the need for comfortable shoes or warm clothes, rain cover, or a way to carry possessions – have long been ushered off-stage, as if the circumstances in which you might be carrying bags, or an extra layer (say, having a job and not having a driver) were a shameful secret. That this is changing is a democratisation of style every bit as vital as fashion being available in more sizes or more price points. The real woman is being taken seriously as a power player in fashion.
The roots of this revolution are found in the explosion of streetstyle as a genre of fashion imagery. It is almost a decade since The Sartorialist’s Scott Schuman kickstarted a world which now also stars Face Hunter, Street Peeper and Tommy Ton. Over that time streetstyle has become immeasurably more professionalised and commercialised. Schuman’s site gets 14 million page views in a good month; he and his peers sit in the front row of all the best shows. The high profile of the blogs has inevitably eroded their naivety, with many of them peopled by a cast of insiders and It girls who are only on the street if their driver had to park down the block.
But the blogs have bridged the gap between the well-dressed ordinary woman, who is documented looking like exactly that in Bill Cunningham’s New York Times column On The Street, and the plasticised visions of women in the ad campaigns. The Sartorialist, with its cobbled-street backdrops (one favourite spot is referred to as “Studio One”) and a penchant for a photogenic push bike, brought a fashion-photographer attitude to shooting well-dressed women. It elevated the art into something of which designers began to take notice.
And then came the selfie. The ordinary woman no longer plays the role of observer; she puts herself in the picture. And then she chooses the most flattering filter. We are obsessed with our own image. Designers, it could be argued, are simply giving us what we want.
Streetstyle and selfies, coat-carrying at Christian Dior and Balenciaga “overflow” bags: the clues were all there. But then came the moment when everything snapped into focus: the sartorial equivalent of that point in a novel when you turn the page and the penny drops and your jaw with it. (If you’ve read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl – or Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved – you know what I’m talking about.) This happened one sunny morning in Paris right at the end of a month of catwalks, when those in possession of a golden ticket from Karl Lagerfeld, the industry’s very own Willy Wonka, streamed into the Grand Palais and on to the hallowed ground that is a Chanel catwalk show