The term haute couture has, traditionally, a connotation of hyperfeminine; visions of delicate accessories, delicate embroidery and frou-frou dresses. This is exactly why, this season, the haute couture presentation of the Schiaparellis SS21 has particularly stood out, the muscular bodices at the heart of the collections. They brought surprising harshness to the mix, so the fashion label dubbed the look examples of sewing power on Instagram.
First, the playful and surreal silhouette went viral in december when Kim Kardashian wore a dark jade version, drawing comparisons to the Incredible Hulk. The six-pack in molded leather, however, was modeled on a pair of realistic mannequins called Pascal and Pascaline, which Elsa Schiaparelli, the founding seamstress of the houses, kept in her living rooms. Who owns it, this is the kind of physique that would require complete dedication to the gym; the one who could roll their eyes at the sight of After unrealistic body standards on the track.
Here, however, Daniel Roseberry, the house’s creative director, presents the super-buffs with a wink and a smile. And it is only the latest in a long tradition of designers that has done the same. Jean Paul Gaultier, for example, played with muscular prints on bombers, knits and t-shirts throughout the ’90s. Robin williams wore one of the French designers’ polka dot muscle shirts in 1995, the campy appeal of the muscular patterns caught the attention of the general public. The eccentric riffs on the sexualized male form that fill Walter van Beirendoncks’ archives date back to a muscle-print second-skin top designed in 1997. And in 2014, Thom Browne took things in 3D, sculpting cotton and tweed into bulging and nervous silhouettes.
Of course, these muscular motifs are deliberately theatrical. They are almost like props in a playful satire of men spending hours chiseling their physique. Yet the fact that fashion engagement with jacked bods has generally been limited to men’s fashion speaks to broader social preconceptions; namely, the false belief that defined muscles are synonymous with male strength. That’s why seeing them in the Schiaparellis collection of women’s clothing was not only strange, but subversive. That was Daniels’ goal from the start. It’s about blurring the traditional lines of gender stereotypes while celebrating femininity, explains the designer. Her muscular bodice, for example, is complemented by an exaggerated pink duchess satin bow, emphasizing that flamboyant displays of femininity and representations of women’s bodily strength are not mutually exclusive.
The garment is a direct counterpoint to those garments that encourage women to tighten muscles, after all, proudly take up space. It’s a proposal that goes against the ideals of couture [that] really formed during a time when gender roles were defined by older, outdated ideas of what men and women should look like, notes Daniel. Other houses sometimes make sewing so delicate and so silent. Elsa [Schiaparelli] had a stronger hand, a daring for her that I find so perfect for these times.
Elsa approached fashion through a surreal lens, artfully flipping the familiar into the absurd. She was known for creating clothes that teased the limits of taste and acceptability during the interwar period, working closely with Salvador Dal on many of his most memorable designs. A particularly notable example is the Skeleton dress 1938, a slender black silk evening dress with quilted bones highlighting those of the body below. In many ways, it foreshadows Daniel Roseberrys’ muscular bodice, placing it as the latest garment in the house’s long legacy of playful and subversive models.
It was no accident that the Schiaparellis SS21 haute couture collection was revealed just days after the inauguration of Joe Bidens for which Daniel designed a dress for Lady Gaga. Indeed, the celebration of Vice President Kamala Harris and all the other women of the new US administration was on the minds of Texan designers: I hope this collection will not only serve as a confirmation of a woman’s place. in government, but also confirmation that the divine feminine is as strong as the masculine, he says. I dreamed of our clients as if they were superheroes, so leather becomes muscles, jewelry and body casting becomes like surreal armor.
While fashion designers have at times drawn their strength and inspiration from wrestlers, bodybuilders and gym junkies, photographers have dived headlong into their world. Perhaps the most famous example is Robert Mapplethorpes’ collaboration with Female bodybuilding world champion Lisa Lyon. A pioneer in female bodybuilding, Mapplethorpes’ black and white photographs of her tense muscles are a living testimony to the changes in perceptions of female strength and power during the 1980s.
More recently, Martin Schoellers delivers Female bodybuilders features full-color portraits revealing the protruding veins, glistening skin and voluminous builds of women who have dedicated their lives to gaining muscle. The images were a source of inspiration for the young designer Pierre-Louis Auvray, whose 2018 Central Saint Martins BA womenswear collection focused on how fabrics react to their bulging physique. I liked the way the garment was stretched over the body, he says. They were wearing stretch fabrics so it was very sculptural. I thought it was really beautiful.
To replicate this stretched look, Pierre-Louis handcrafted a muscular foam jumpsuit and covered it with thin layers of latex. With its oversized muscles and glossy scarlet finish, the end result looks like it came straight out of a superhero movie. He received a mixed reaction. Some people thought it was cool, he smiled and others thought it was grotesque. The designer put the costume on a female model because it would have been much less striking if it had been worn by a man. You expect a man to be muscular.
Muscular designs in women’s fashion can cause shock (and, in Kim’s case, memes) but, more often than not, their impact doesn’t extend much beyond the realm of harmless cosplay. We can all savor the campness of Kim K in grumpy disguise for Christmas, but the reasons to claim this as a victory for diverse body representation are tenuous at best.
Photography Steph Wilson
There is, however, a new wave of designers who are directly challenging bodily norms and perceptions of feminine strength in their work. Schiaparellis’ bodice was cast from mannequins, but what if it had been modeled from a real muscular body? Designer Sinead ODwyer offers something close to an answer with her gathered silk bodysuits and hand-cast silicone casts of the bodies of her muses. Visually striking, it is their authenticity that gives these pieces their depth. They represent and celebrate the power, strength and validity of real bodies that have generally been overlooked in fashion.
A similar take on size inclusiveness is at the heart of New York-based bodysuit brand Chromat. Defending muscular female bodies is at the heart of their mission, said founder Becca McCharen-Tran, stressing that their exclusion from the track reflects the values of a patriarchal society. Excluding muscular women from fashion sends a clear message to women: we want you to be short men and not overpower men.
Femita Ayanbeku for Chromat AW20. Photo by Brian Ach / Getty Images for Chromat
His patriarchy which idealizes a male role as the most powerful person in the room, she continues. Patriarchy is threatened by strong women and anyone who does not conform to strict binary gender roles. Such roles reinforce the assumption that only men need clothes to fit a muscular physique. As such, sample sizes of women’s clothing are rarely calculated taking into account the athletic body. Sample sizes tend to be an excuse other designers cite as the reason they don’t feature a range of sizes in their runways, Becca explains. At Chromat, we know that the designer has the power to choose the size in which he will prototype his collection. Our goal is to encourage more designers to sample their collections in a range of sizes to celebrate all the different sized bodies on the catwalk, including muscular bodies.
Whether your reaction to something like Daniel Roseberrys’ muscular bodice is a laugh or a confused tilt of your head, watching designers play with our notions of the dream body is both fun and must-have. Much like Elsa Schiaparellis, these creative gestures make us stop and wonder why things are as they are, if they could be different, and what they could look like if they were. More often than not, muscle patterns are used for their intrinsically camp aesthetic value, but the conversations they spark allow us to contemplate and reprogram our understanding of bodily and gender norms. On a lighter note, though, maybe they also offer a quick fix if your home gym routine hasn’t gone as planned that lockdown. After all, why start working on your summer body when you can just buy one over a t-shirt?
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