Nuptial Couture

10.02.11

The Power of the Wedding Dress

At Paris Fashion Week, designers like Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe unveil collections that raise questions about more than hemlines—such as what the wedding dress means. By Robin Givhan.

Back in the early days of the modern fashion industry, when designers presented their collections to an intimate group of women perched on tiny gilded chairs, they signaled their finale by sending out a model in a wedding gown. Having a bride end the show suggested that the wedding gown was the ne plus ultra. Nothing in the collection could top this extravagant white dress with all its accompanying mythology.

Over the years, as women have turned to fashion as professional armor or as a proclamation of sexual liberation, the quaint, seemingly irrational magic of the wedding gown stubbornly endures. (Women would never wear bustles and merry widows in their everyday lives—not even for a special black-tie affair—but they’re willing to get involved with such treachery on their wedding day.) Indeed, not so long ago, the designer Alber Elbaz—widely admired within the fashion industry for his ability to give women powerful, sensual, and modern clothes—lamented to me that when it comes to romance, women, no matter how independent and self-assured they might be, revert to the ageless stereotype when a marriage is pending. They want the whole, glorious wedding shebang—including the significant white gown.

The power of the wedding dress was at the core of the Comme des Garçons collection for spring 2012, which was unveiled during Paris Fashion Week. Comme des Garçons was among a group of creative, masterful, and eye-opening collections that offered a message beyond silhouette and color story.

The first model that designer Rei Kawakubo sent down the runway wore an enormous and cumbersome white gown with a garishly bloated skirt. Her hair was covered by an enormous headdress that looked like an entire wedding cake had melted around her skull. And, startlingly, her hands were seemingly bound by a giant white bow. This was an abrupt indictment of the entirely extravagant, overly commercialized, highly politicized institution of marriage.

Kawakubo did not appear to be taking romance to task. Her emphasis was not on the subject of love. Instead, she focused on symbolism, on the wedding as a rite of passage. She explored the notions of purity and virginity and how they are enmeshed with contracts, property and individual rights.

As the models processed down the runway wearing this all-white collection, the dresses became ever more bloated with lace and sparkly embroidery. Even simpler white dresses were surrounded by a lattice cage of fabric, as if to suggest that marriage is a kind of imprisonment, a fundamental loss of freedom. And perhaps it is. For the only way to successfully merge two lives is to compromise, for each soul to give up something or for one to relinquish everything.

As the models moved to the strains of the cello, many of the frocks they wore were irresistible. There were dresses adorned with white roses, white lace tops, sweet rompers. There were references to other transitional moments: a christening, a first communion, a death.

There were white cloaks with rounded hoods that made the models look like ghostly apparitions. Other frocks called to mind priestly raiments. And there were still other wraps whose deep hoods rose to a sharp point and in an instant the mind flickered to the terror of the Ku Klux Klan. That’s not what the collection was about, of course, but as soon as fashion stops being a direct dialogue about hemlines and silhouettes and turns into something that is impressionistic and even poetic, it works its magic in the subconscious, drawing out the good and the bad.

Kawakubo made one think of weddings as a source of joy for women who choose it, and a source of terror to those for whom it means subjugation. A runaway bride, after all, is often running for her life.

By the time the last model appeared on the runway, Kawakubo had worked her way through a complex treatise on life: from birth to the denouement of marriage and onward. She had underscored grotesque excess and self-indulgence. With her satin cages and bows of bondage, she had acknowledged the powerful stereotypes that continue to endure. There was anger and aggression inherent in the few white dresses that had been scarred with jagged lines of black graffiti. (And for a woman who is not married—by choice or otherwise—are there not moments of rage, annoyance, or exasperation over society’s assumption that marriage should be her goal or even her desire?)

Kawakubo’s finale was a fragile mannequin enveloped in ruffles and white flowers. Her face was shrouded. She was consumed by ritual. She was anonymous. All that anyone could see, all that mattered in the end, as with so many weddings, was the dress.

Kawakubo’s collection was, perhaps, the most unnerving of the past few days of Paris fashion shows. But she wasn’t alone in toying with topics grander than the clothes themselves. Junya Watanabe created a collection that explored the richness of nature, turning his models into dazzling birds with elaborately feathered headdresses who had alighted in easy dresses of sturdy floral lace. His cropped trench coats—as short as a matador’s jacket—were adorned with rows of translucent ruffles that called to mind the wings of a thousand shimmering moths.

Watanabe’s collection was remarkably creative, yet not burdened by ponderousness or obfuscation. It was a joyous embrace of nature and the ways in which fashion can bring us closer to it rather than stand us apart.

Kawakubo made one think of weddings as a source of joy for women who choose it and a source of terror to those for whom it means subjugation.

Hussein Chalayan served as a well-dressed waiter standing stage right doling out glasses of champagne to his parade of models who wore his cantaloupe-colored full skirts, rose-printed slim skirts, angular tunics and trim trousers. The audience saw more of the back of the clothes than the front. After the models retrieved their bubbly, they turned their back to the audience as they sipped from their flute.

It was a bit like watching a surly jazz musician, channeling Miles Davis, take the stage. Or being trapped in a ghastly cocktail party where guests refuse to mingle. But in a world where intimate communication has become so rare, and we tend to huddle with our own kind, it would seem that it’s the least we can do to make sure our backsides look as well considered as our front.

Chitose Abe, showing her Sacai collection on the runway, argued that we all have dual sides with her collection of wonderfully teasing dresses and tops that had a split personality. A sweater from the front turned into a sheer top when the model turned her back. Dresses had fake underskirts. Jackets gave the false impression of dangling shirt tails. Nothing is as it appears to be, and things that often seem complicated at first glance are actually quite simple when explored with patience and time.

Yohji Yamamoto’s collection of cropped trousers in shades of gray and black, his long black kilts, his abundantly layered skirts and tunics in a mountain of purple all combined to explore the ease of masculinity and the lushness—and burden—of femininity.

And finally, Haider Ackermann’s sonnet of color spoke of a global vision of fashion in which Western suits mixed with flowing chiffon jellabas. If his collection was about anything beyond mesmerizing clothes, it was the message that beauty knows no cultural bounds.

And individuality is the greatest treasure of all.