How Hippie Clothes Became a Feminist Power Uniform

·5 min read
Photo credit: Gabriela Hearst. Victor VIRGILE - Getty Images
Photo credit: Gabriela Hearst. Victor VIRGILE - Getty Images

The power look of today’s woman is not a strong-shouldered suit or a voluminous gown.

All of a sudden, it is a long fringed knit dress.

At yesterday’s Gabriela Hearst show, the Resistance Revival Choir, clad in white dresses, lined a runway in a big warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and burst into song. The warehouse doors flew open and out came the models in ribbed white dresses with delicate threading or long black column dresses with gold Greecian goddess breastplates. One wore a glowing saffron knit dress with a cape twisted elegantly at the chest and tossed over the back; another clutch of women were in oozy-woozy paisley crotchets. Within the traditional model ranks were feminist figures of pop cultural status, like former Planned Parenthood leader Cecile Richards, model and activist Lauren Wasser, and climate justice activist Xiye Bastida.

What was slightly subversive about the presentation of these gentle clothes is that they poured out through an enormous wall of sound, and the models wearing them were charging ahead with purpose. This was no innocent nature walk—this was a power stride. And while there were suits mixed in—Hearst always does a lovely slightly oversized blazer and structured trouser—it was these gentler knit looks and goddess dresses that defined the collection. The clothes are vulnerable and tender, and emphasize techniques that require a hand to craft them. But they are also durable, and almost bravely understated. They cling to the feminine form. Hearst has created a compelling case that the contemporary woman is not leading with her shoulders but with her entire being.

Hearst is not the only one to suggest that there is power or empowerment in compassionate clothes. For designers like Hillary Taymour, of Collina Strada, and Paris-based Marine Serre, feminism is intrinsic to the work. Taymour’s is an uncompromising message of environmentalism, that the natural world is a place to be treasured and enjoyed and delighted in with the reverence of a couture dress. And Serre has made an artform out of the limits of re-fashioning old clothes into something new and far more complex, turning deadstock bath towels into bourgeois little suits, which is a pretty badass commentary on the wastes of capitalism that occur at every economic level.

You could put Ulla Johnson in this category, too, and even Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior. The way the clothes are made is heavy with a celebration of the traditionally female act of making, and the clothes themselves, while softer than a traditional power look, take on that meaning too. A woman in a Hearst dress is not a shrinking violet fanning herself by the pool, but a kingpin who demands a strong type of comfort. Perhaps this look has come about in the wake of the thinking many women have been doing throughout the pandemic about how just ambitious they want to be. In our new lives, it isn’t that the suit is irrelevant (and a number of designers have told me that tailored clothes are selling like hotcakes). It’s more that Hearst, and these other designers, have made what was once the cobbled together style of a skeptic on society’s fringes into the image of someone who believes they can bring about great change in the world. Maybe there’s a connection, too, to the way that well-off women have embraced wellness, mindfulness, and spirituality, emphasizing the soft and introspective over the loud and masculine.

What puts Hearst’s work at the forefront of this pack is that she has been clear in her message and ambitious in her goals in a true luxury setting. She insists that her garments and beliefs are one and the same. The politics of the brand, even if they would be considered centrist by the generation that follows Hearst’s, are a bold statement within the ranks of a behemoth like LVMH, which has a minority stake in her label, and even within the luxury business at large. (She also designs Chloe, a Richemont house.) There are certainly women in the Hearst demographic who are conservative enough that they would chafe at seeing Richards on a runway. Still, I think she could push her shapes and colors further. I would love to see some unexpected tones from her, or more variety in the knitting styles.

Even at a brand like Marni, which is run by the 39-year-old Francesco Risso, crafty clothes that show the hand are a uniform of strength. The front row was stacked with menswear fashion fanatics like rapper Kodak Black (sitting in front of me, smoking a beautifully rolled blunt) and basketball player James Harden.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of this collection, which felt too much like a thunderingly serious art project centered on one idea about round yarn patterns. (The too-thin knitted separates several of the female models were dressed in felt a little menial, as well.) But I hadn’t witnessed a Marni show in person before, and seeing everyone huddled together in a Dumbo underpass, with figures like photographer Tyler Mitchell and elite model Lara Stone walking the show, clarified why a certain kind of star has a cult attachment to the brand. The art world and brainy fit gods see these clothes as demonstratively sensitive, cerebral objects. It’s like Prada for people who cry at arthouse movies.

(Interestingly, just as this conflation of crafty clothes and power seems to codify, Jonathan Anderson, who originated this idea from another direction, did an about-face and is now making the most out-there, deliciously difficult-to-digest clothes in the world. Will be interesting to see what he gets up to at his brand at London Fashion Week and Loewe in Paris, later in the month.)

Maybe my Marni skepticism is fueled by a feeling that female designers are the stars of this week, driving all the ideas forward. Even when female craft doesn’t have a political undercurrent, it is still something deeper to behold. That’s why I adored Maryam Nassir Zadeh’s so-strange-it-shouldn’t-work collection of old fabric scraps and treasured passemanterie sculpted and patched together into half-skirts, little strappy tops, kinda-dresses, and see-through skirts. I could just see and know and love this woman, stalking through the Lower East Side on the way home from a big night out, her posterior basically visible to the whole world, and feeling just great.

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