Bold ballgowns and voluminous shapes are suddenly storming runways and red carpets everywhere, a literal representation of women asserting their physical space in the world. As we discover, it’s more than just a fashion statement

Swooshing about in two hulking mounds of hot pink tulle trimmed with a bedazzled empire waistline at the 2015 Grammys, Rihanna and her couture gown by Giambattista Valli set the internet ablaze at a time when leggy, cutout numbers still reigned supreme on the red carpet (that very same event saw pop stars like Gwen Stefani and Ariana Grande in varied states of nakedness). It was, for a while, a running joke that one could spot Rihanna’s pouf from space. Since then however, we’ve been exposed to gowns of cosmic proportions that render RiRi’s a mere scrunchie. Think of Jennifer Lopez at her Second Act NYC premiere in 2018 in another sweeping Valli number, Lady Gaga in a fluorescent Brandon Maxwell dress at the 2019 Met Gala, and most recently even Grande switched her tune, donning another, well, grande number from Valli at the 2020 Grammys.

Some have begun to call this trend a return to princess dressing à la Cinderella, but the pea under my mattress tells me it has less to do with fairy tales, and more to do with grappling with modern realities. Stacking up the stately dresses seen on the Paris and Milan runways just this season, I realised that women are literally taking up space in the world with their fashion choices, and the movement deserves an equally expansive name: Womanspreading. Underneath its glittery surface, this trend has revealed powerful political undertones more serious than sweet. Women are practically flaunting their gowns’ great girth to assert their right over the ground they walk on.

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Above Alexander McQueen pre-spring 2020 outfit (Photo: Courtesy of Alexander McQueen)
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Above Moncler x Simone Rocha outfit

Looking to the Past

Of course, size has always mattered—every inch that has been added to or removed from prevailing silhouettes throughout history has been debated and fought over, as have their meaning and symbolism. As Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando nearly a century ago, “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”

In Victorian times, swimming in swaths of cloth signalled class and wealth. “The extreme width of voluminous 18th-century gowns, such as the robe a la française, called to attention the excessive amounts of costly textiles required to construct the dress,” Melissa Marra-Alvarez tells me, as I hunt down the trend’s origins. Marra-Alvarez is the curator of education and research at The Museum at FIT in New York City, who curated Minimalism/Maximalism, an exhibition held there last year.

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Above Rihanna wears a Giambattista Valli haute couture gown at the 2015 Grammy Awards (Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

In China, a common thread spanning the Qing to postmodernist eras is that women’s clothing, in all its flowy, silky glory, was always meant to disguise the body and project submissiveness and softness. “Qing dress was characterised by a preference for silk, and a loose fit that was meant to conceal the body,” Jackie Yoong, curator of fashion and textiles and Peranakan art explains in the gallery text for Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum’s new Fashion and Textiles Gallery, which opened this year.

Dictated by the codes of ruling bodies, most often written by men, Qing formal court robes reflected how the identities of women were largely defined in relation to men, until, of course, global wars and civil movements disrupted the status quo, burying many of these habits among other physical and social casualties. In modern times, high fashion in the East and West sometimes bifurcated when it came to breaking or holding to conventions, displaying or hiding the body and embracing or defying traditional gender roles.

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Above Ariana Grande wears a Giambattista Valli haute couture gown at the 2020 Grammy Awards (Photo: John Shearer/Getty Images)
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Above Noir Kei Ninomiya spring-summer 2020 looks (Photo: Jason Lloyd-Evans)

Pushing the Envelope

Rei Kawakubo, the designer of Comme des Garçons, immediately comes to mind as one of the first Asian designers to turn female sexuality in fashion on its head. While her western contemporaries like Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani began cinching jackets at the waist (as Christian Dior famously did after World War II), Kawakubo, SCAD’s fashion and marketing professor Cristina Kountiou tells me, contorted shapes that were rooted in conservatism into hyperbolic proportions, forming amorphous designs verging on the grotesque.

This was widely interpreted as an act of rebellion. Her irreverent, avant-garde approach continues to inspire Asian talents today like Irish-Chinese designer Simone Rocha, who found commercial success under Kawakubo’s tutelage at Dover Street Market. Rocha, known for her frothy bubble gowns, paired delicate chinoiserie-covered satin with metal spikes and bloodied bird motifs for her spring-summer 2020 ready-to-wear collection, as if to say the woman personified in her designs is not one to be trifled with.

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Above Balenciaga spring-summer 2020 gowns (Photo: Jason Lloyd-Evans)

The feminist wave of the 1970s also saw women struggling to secure their place in the boardroom, in sports and in politics, among other battlefields. At this time, our social canvas depicted women dressing like men—that boyish, Annie Hall outline that would presumably allow her to blend into the suited masses. “In my first job interview ever, I think I wore a three-piece suit because in my mind, even in the Nineties, for a woman to be taken seriously, she had to be dressed like a man,” Elizabeth von der Goltz, global buying director for Net-a-Porter, told me over Zoom, chuckling at the memory.

Today, while the idea is not as anachronistic as one might hope (trouser suits are alive and well at places like investment banks, where vestiges of patriarchal dressing still have a firm grip over corporate culture), the influential buyer has seen a resurgence of popularity in suits, “but created, styled and worn the way we as women want to wear them”, she says. That means suits in powder pastels, worn over Bermuda shorts or with not much else underneath the blazer, as the suit jacket today has no interest in fitting in or being draped over an office chair.

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Above Viktor & Rolf spring couture 2019 looks (Photo: Jason Lloyd-Evans)
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Above Tomo Koizumi spring-summer 2020 dress (Photo: Courtesy of Tomo Koizumi)

Making a Statement

Almost in tandem, Von der Goltz has seen an uptake in frills, froth and balletic proportions, as if, she says, women are demonstrating that they can dress like a woman and work like a man. In the #MeToo era, fashion encourages women to wear whatever they please, which could be two strips of fabric and nothing else, or it could also be a gargantuan gown so daunting that it dares you to fit into any box, physical or otherwise. “And there’s nothing soft or docile about the bows that adorn them,” says Marra-Alvarez.

Viktor and Rolf, master couturiers known for creating larger-than-life gowns with a touch-me-not danger to them, made the association of size and strength crystal clear. For their 2019 spring couture collection, the designers transformed towering totems of tulle into sartorial signboards with various slogans like “I’m not shy, I just don’t like you” and “I am my own muse” plastered across them. Never interested in overt sexuality in their work, the designers make leg-of-mutton sleeves just a bit too sharp and bustles a tad too wide as if to warn passersby to maintain their distance. The intended effect? “We want our women to be magnificent and admired. We always believed that an elaborated silhouette makes one stand out and can be like psychological armour,” they said when I asked them to dissect that collection, which went viral.

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Above Balenciaga spring-summer 2020 gown (Photo: Jason Lloyd-Evans)

Sartorial Armour

It’s a fraught subject for celebrities, who are slammed if they reveal too much and slammed if they don’t. When Ariana Grande—long a subject of scrutiny over her sexualised public persona—arrived at the Grammys cocooned in a foam fortress that almost entirely obscured her frame, it was as if she had adopted the opposite extreme to change the conversation around her body. Billie Eilish has made baggy clothes a signature, she says in a Calvin Klein ad, so “Nobody can have an opinion because they haven’t seen what’s underneath.”

The word “armour” has always been tossed around in conversations with designers and academics alike about fashion’s role in empowering women. Simone Rocha likened making sculptural shapes around the body to “creating a layer of protection”. Indeed there must be something fortifying about a donning a military-meets-magnolia gown by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, for another example.

“The recent social and political climate has been underscored by a feeling of uncertainty and instability all over the world,” says Marra-Alvarez. “The exaggerated proportions we see today can appear physically imposing because they literally take up more physical space. This can be an act of subversion or even a way of countering that anxiety, sort of saying, ‘I am formidable’.”

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Above Noir Kei Ninomiya spring-summer 2020 looks (Photo: Jason Lloyd-Evans)

But does volume really offer protection, or is it more about perception? No one could argue that wearing a tent dress can protect you from the psychological effects of, say, having a misogynistic president. But there was something intimidating about Demna Gvasalia’s dramatic reinterpretation of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s 1939 Infanta silhouette in the finale of his spring-summer 2020 ready-to-wear show.

With enormous, rigid crinoline skirts in stark hues, the gowns simultaneously served as velvet-wrapped shields and weapons. There is no question that the woman who wears them feels entitled to the space she occupies. So goes the fearless femininity displayed on the tanned shoulders of pop divas, as well as on models storming down the runways for now-trending designers like Richard Quinn, Molly Goddard, Angel Chen and Tomo Koizumi. The message their clothes carry is clear: I have arrived, and if my dress won’t fit the room, well then, we’ll need a bigger room.

See also: The Alchemist: How Iris Van Herpen Has Redefined Couture Craftsmanship With Modern Technologies

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