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 weddinggown. Having a bride end the show suggested that the wedding gown was thene 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 Garçonscollection 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?)
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