Fashionable Adaptations

Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood, Armani: Charles Dickens’s Influence on Fashion Week

The British author turned 200 this year—and his influence was felt on the runways, with Victorian elements popping up at Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood, and L’Wren Scott. Misty White Sidell reports.

In February, Charles Dickens turned 200. To commemorate the anniversary, he’s become the subject of several exhibitions and TV adaptations, such as Dickens at 200 at the Morgan Library and Museum, and Great Expectations on BBC’s Masterpiece Theatre. A new feature film adaptation, slated for later this year, will star Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham.

But this season, Dickens’s presence has been felt on the runways as well. As fashion week spans New York, London, Milan, and Paris, his influence has popped up everywhere. Fall 2012 collections have exhibited bright, layered textures, undercut by a mix-matched dishevelment and Victorian-era sensibility. And while Dickensian references aren’t new to the runways (a year ago Marchesa and Prabal Gurung both cited Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham as their inspiration), this season marks a timely resurgence of Victoriana. At the Marc Jacobs show, held at the New York Armory, models circled an elaborate set to the theme song of Oliver Twist, while other designers such as Anna Sui, SUNO, and Giles, showed collections that were shaded with the Dickensian aesthetic.

“With the way the economy has been so ugly, suddenly it seems that the idea of a debtors’ prison [from works such as Little Dorrit] is not as far away as it used to be,” says Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “The fact that Dickens is really resonating with people now on some unconscious level is not surprising.”

But the aesthetic dominating runways this season is a marriage of two sides of Dickens—a hybrid style Steele labels as “ragpicker dandy.” The look combines two disparate classes of the Dickensian world, shown in unison to cool effect. The first component represents Dickens’s own penchant for dandyism with precise tailoring, ruffled ascots, and fitted pants—all indicative of the fashionable men of his time. “[Dickens] was not in the taste of a true, good dandy like Beau Brummel,” explained Steele, “He was a bit more garish, more colorful.” A key piece in the dandy wardrobe, the waistcoat, was seen in collections from L’Wren Scott, Giorgio Armani, and Vivienne Westwood—collections where Victoriana took an elevated turn toward tailoring, often designed in Dickens-friendly blazing colors. Scott’s in particular were fabricated of jewel-tone embossed velvet, shown as part of a three-piece skirt suit that exuded an antiquated femininity.

The trend’s other half recalls the disheveled, mix-matched style of Dickens’s protagonists such as Tiny Tim and Amy Dorrit that span between great works such as Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield. The scruffy look has been manifested on runways in collections filled with layering, raw-edged detailing, and mixed prints—the latter of which recall the fabric-stealing pickpockets in Oliver Twist. SUNO’s Max Osterweis explained, “There is a very cool thing in mixing prints … it can be coy and intellectual—there’s something kind of flirtatious about mixing all of these things.” He and partner Erin Beatty layered dusty chiffon plaids, vivid stripes, and delicately printed silks to create a Victorian effect.

A more overt Dickensian reference was seen in English designer Giles Deacon’s collection, who designed an uncanny series of burnt white gowns that recalled Miss Havisham’s fiery demise. These undone elements, when combined with more buttoned-up dandy-type details, create a delicate aesthetic balance between high and low. Vivienne Westwood showed her signature rumpled tweeds in her “Red” collection in London, filled with crisp shirting, crooked fedoras, and frizzy pompadour hairstyles.

In a way, Dickens’s trickle-down effect to the runway makes perfect sense. In each of his novels, the author gruelingly elaborates on the physical details of his protagonists, meticulously describing their wardrobes. “[His characters] are usually either shabby genteel or working class,” says Declan Kiely, curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan Library & Museum, who curated the Morgan’s bicentennial exhibit of Dickens’s manuscripts. “These are people who never quite make enough money to look fashionable; it’s a made-up attempt to look fashionable by recycling hand-me-downs and things that have been acquired. They’re making an array of fashion work for them—it’s very much that mixed style, putting things together to make them work.”

Nowhere was the Dickensian rummaged look clearer than at Marc Jacobs, where a display of chimney-sweep eyes, buckled court shoes, and graveyard-shift hair was matched with contrarian haute furs and pluming silhouettes. It was luxury on a street-faring bender, but according to Steele, “those aspects together are what Dickensian London was all about.”