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Trapeze dresses: Tracing their history from London Fashion Week to Louis XV

Trapeze dresses: Tracing their history from London Fashion Week to Louis XV

Just a little fashion nerdery

Text: Ryan Sng


Image: Pinterest | Kai lida

Good ol' Christmas is one of the most ritualised events on the western world's calendar; it's where conspicuous consumption, mandatory goodwill to all men and cringeworthily sentimental pop music converge to make us a) gooey with tenderness, or b) emotionally devastated at some perceived lack in our lives (clearly, I am not a Christmas person). Though you'd think otherwise, the post-Christmas wind-down period — nameless though it may be — is every bit as loaded with observances. There's the comical mock-horror at how much we've shopped and ate, commitments to fitness or weight loss whose failure we self-deprecatingly predict as soon as they've been uttered, and, for some women, joking resignation to a fashionable first quarter of stretch pants or shapeless trapeze dresses.

As someone partial to offbeat, man-repelling silhouettes — I also love puffball skirts and egg-shaped sack dresses — I object to the ignoble status assigned to the trapeze dress. The trapeze, a not-just-waist-less, but playfully full and free-flowing silhouette, deserves way more love than it currently receives; its story is a thrilling one, of food babies, real babies and political waistlines. Hidden within its capacious shell are the anxieties of men over women's bodies, and also of women over their own and their peers's bodies. It has taken forms as gorgeously rarefied as a cloud of silk tulle strung with metallic thread and beaded with glass, and as quotidian as the archetypal women's bathroom sign.

We're all familiar with the trapeze's antithesis: the hourglass. The hourglass has dominated most, if not all feminine ideals across civilisation, connoting as it does fertile and untouched womanhood. As much as we may love it, it's hard to deny that its existence is tied to a fundamental view of women as child-bearers and, to some extent, property. While shapeless clothing has waxed and waned — although mercifully remaining a constant for pregnant women — completely body-obscuring shapes have rarely surfaced in the history of fashion. A notable example, however, is the robe volante of the 1730s, ostensibly inspired by Indian dressing gowns and popular for a (very short) time during the reign of Louis XV of France.

To the modern eye, the robe volante would hardly scream 'comfy' — it still required a corset, albeit an unboned one, and a pannier. Having said that, to noblewomen in the 18th century, it was a relative godsend. The style was quickly deemed indecent and squashed by noblemen (of course!) who claimed the robe volante masked pregnancies and deprived men (of course!) of the joys of policing women and their bodies. The robe volante vanished from the historical record almost as soon as it appeared, accounting for the precious few surviving examples in museums today.

Restored to prominence, the tightly cinched looks typically associated with period costume held sway until after the French Revolution, where anything resembling extravagant and impractical court outfits was frowned upon. Waistless dresses were in again, and somewhat more manoeuvrable Directoire or Empire styles enjoyed two-odd decades of prominence before the pendulum swung to 'squished intestines' anew. Women would have to wait until the 20th century to breathe easy; World War I demanded female labour — and by extension, less tortured fashion — while Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes brought liberated, Orientalist shapes to the mainstream. Seizing upon this new vogue, designers including Paul Poiret, Mariano Fortuny, Madeleine Vionnet and Jeanne Lanvin paved the way for the Jazz Age fashions of the 20s; hints of the trapeze line are evident in Lanvin's dropped-waist robes de style, with their voluminous, fluffed up skirts.

The emancipated waistlines of the '20s would only recur in 1958, not coincidentally the year following Christian Dior's untimely death. The couturier had revived tightly-corseted silhouettes and a return to femininity of the old-timey, delicate variety after World War II, whose horrors had left women open to the return of tradition, despite the loss of independence and economic power it entailed. His successor, a young, iconoclastic (and ultimately doomed, at least at the house of Dior) Yves Saint Laurent introduced the trapeze line at roughly the same time as Cristobal Balenciaga and Hubert de Givenchy. While short-lived, the trapeze (or Babydoll, as the other two labelled it) dress signalled a chip in the armour of '50s ultra-girliness.

Since those undemocratic days, women's fashion has become increasingly fragmented. Where Parisian designers once dictated the look of the year or even the decade, there are ever-expanding options to match women's diverse careers, lifestyles and socio-economic statuses. It's a world where Olivier Rousteing's hyper-sexed Balmain and Yohji Yamamoto's ascetic body of work each command large followings and column inches, and where the body-conscious and diaphanous can coexist on the sales floor. None of it means, however, that a fit-and-flare frock and billowy tent are anywhere near equal in standing.

Despite popping up, whack-a-mole style, on the runways of influential houses like Dior, Mary Katrantzou and Alexander McQueen, society still looks askance at the trapeze. A celebrity wearing one is instantly polarising, with comments frequently ranging from the incredulous ("why would you want to cover up your body like that?") to the derisive ("she looks frumpy, or pregnant. Is she pregnant?"). It's noteworthy that the majority of non-expectant stars who've worn them fall on the 'edgy' or 'elegant' spectrum of fashion, where conventional, man-friendly attractiveness is unimportant.

The pathological discomfort sparked by the trapeze dress can't be a question of ease or mobility, given that other, equally cumbersome fashions have been adopted with little resistance. Debates around the male gaze, female reproductive rights and the value accorded to women's physical beauty have persisted for forever, but they feel pretty salient right now. Some of the world's most culturally influential women are using their platforms to tout diet teas and waist-cinchers, while the post-pregnancy elasticity of prominent figures like Victoria's Secret angels is given endless air time in the media. Even female professionals — like politicians and newsreaders — whose appearances are not commodified are subject to scrutiny. Which begs the question: are our bodies, despite our best efforts, still public property?

Fashion as a barometer of the times isn't offering much by way of explanation or resolution right now, but here's a little challenge. If you've never been tempted to try it, go ahead and smack on a trapeze dress. When someone offers you their seat on a train (which they will, as I've learned from years of experience), smile and politely decline. When a family member or friend asks why you're 'dressed that way', or jokes that you're hiding a food baby, smile and explain that you simply like the way you look. Because, to quote linguist Erin McKean — whose words are often misattributed to Diana Vreeland — "Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked 'female'". So, if you wanna walk down the street looking like a fluffy triangle, guess what? You've every right to do so, even if you're not carrying a figurative or literal bun in the oven. Isn't womanhood glorious?

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