As the youngest daughter of a bespoke dressmaker, fashion has always had a feminine face for me. Growing up from toddler to teen in my mother’s atelier, I never clung to the hem of her skirts; rather, I watched her make them. Hours were spent watching bauble-eyed as my mother manipulated lengths of fabric into flowing skirts, forging pintucks from silvery sheaths of silk and dotting handmade buttons into oscillating fishtail curves. She had been designing and making womenswear for over twenty years before I arrived as a baby; round-cheeked and inquisitive, playing with scraps of William Morris’s ‘Strawberry Thief’ in my Silver Cross pram.
Having my own female fashion inspiration close to home meant that I never properly examined the success of women in the high-end sector of the industry. Growing up in the Nineties, there were prominent female influences everywhere I turned; leaning out from sky-high billboards and laughing on the covers of magazines. The Big Five were skipping down the catwalks, arms linked in unity, whilst the Spice Girls triumphed at the Brits. Girl power, they called it. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the can-do mentality translated into an increase in female designers leaving their lipstick print on the couture of high fashion. The truth is that the visibility of female designers has suffered in this fast-paced, long-limbed industry. Women are more commonly imagined as mannequins to wear high-end threads – less so as the force behind their production.
Happily, women seem to be intuitively programmed to know what other women want to wear, and how they wish to feel in their clothes. Women: exquisite as they are mystical, creative as they are full of business-like verve, feminine and full to the brim of effervescence are multi-faceted creatures. How to explain to someone the idiosyncrasies of a woman’s brain that dictates why one day, we should feel the longing to don a figure hugging cocktail dress, and yet the next, plump for androgynous tailoring? Women understand these inexplicable curiosities, as much as they honour both the imagination and the need for practicality.
Only in the last few years have female fashion designers really ridden to the fore. The catwalks are levelling and women are receiving critical exposure that was once almost exclusively bestowed on the dominant male designers who prevailed in the Nineties. At points, the achievements of some female designers have been overshadowed by their male counterparts, whilst in other cases, women have lacked the support, connections and resources to facilitate to garner international acclaim. The stalwarts of Nineties couture such as Tom Ford at Gucci, Michael Kors at Celine, Gianni Versace and Karl Lagerfeld exercised a spotlight prominence and momentum that was difficult for young female designers to compete with. With the popular view that men create fantasy, women practicality, fashion has had a hard time trying to reconcile the spheres of the industry when spectacle was once the order of the day.
Nowadays, a greater awareness of the need to nurture the talent and potential of young female designers has blossomed. In an infinitesimal power shift, a new crop of female talent has surpassed the rampant rule of men in favour of the all-inclusive vision of the female designer. A distinct feminist realisation that equality with men should extend to all domains, creative or otherwise, has been ignited. Trailblazers such as Mary Katrantzou and her colourful, digitalised prints have injected some much needed vitality. So too has the structured sophistication of Roksanda Ilincic’s designs brought a refreshing edge to feminine tailoring.
The rise of Sarah Burton as Alexander McQueen’s creative director, and the indomitable Jenna Lyons, president of the American giant J. Crew, have shown their might as artistic powerhouses. A constellation of designers is growing with steady intent, setting the industry aglow with feminine energy.
Fashion produced by women, for women, has the most extraordinary trajectory. Many a time, I have listened to female friends discuss cherished silken heirlooms passed down through generations, each garment replete with its own genealogical lineage. A wedding dress perhaps given life during the darkest hours of wartime, reconstructed into a christening robe, re-used for decades until the family agreed, in the name of preservation, to only allow ‘show and tell’ usage. A garter appropriated as a scrunchie, a baby’s crocheted blanket flung around the shoulders as a shawl, a black velvet Eighties dress plundered from the attic just in time for prom. These anecdotes, stitched lovingly in at the seams and blanketed into the fabric’s folds, speak volumes about female versatility, ingenuity, and the ability to use fashion to formulate an identity. The mutually reciprocal bond of love and trust forged between maker and wearer of a special textile has a truly enduring longevity.
In a recent bid to trace some of my mother’s old customers and creations from her heyday, I posted on a memory site, asking if anyone remembered my mother’s old boutique, Calico Casa, which thrived in the Seventies making sweeping maxi dresses, frilly beach skirts and bolero tops. Before long, I had several responses, and miraculously, photographs, documenting tales of well-loved and well-worn garments designed and produced by my mother. In the words of one, my mother knew how to make clothes that produced a feeling of both “femininity and confidence.” One lady told me delightedly that even after 35 years she could still fit into her wedding dress. She had gone to my mother specifically because she wanted to look “different”. Another lady emailed, recalling how my mother “amazed me when her baby arrived, as she carried on working away at her sewing machine with the playpen next to her…nothing seemed to faze her.” It is this memory that resonated most deeply in my psyche. Suddenly, I was a toddler at my mother’s knee again, listening to the whirr and thrum of machines and watching rows of concertina pleats tumble to the floor, wishing that one day, I would grow up to become just like her.
This article was written and submitted by Christobel Amelia Hastings for Round 1 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Christobel Amelia was invited to take part in Round 2. Read all the published submissions.