As the new season’s fashions begin to hit the shops it’s always interesting to see how fashion trends are reflecting cultural changes. This has always been the way. In the 1920’s dresses were straight and far more androgynous than previously, hair was short and there was no bust as women took steps towards equality. In the 30s there was a return to matriarchal power and fashion resumed the waist with hats (the crown) and the feminine form very much emphasised. And so it goes on.
This Autumn/Winter there is a huge trend for women’s clothes borrowed from the masculine wardrobe, however it’s not the casual wear the designers are copying, it’s the formal elements that reflect a man’s suit; a palette of overwhelmingly neutral colours, Prince of Wales checks and dogtooth patterns traditionally associated with men’s tailoring, fitted single or double breasted blazer jackets all finished off with waistcoats, ties and cufflinks. This is interesting because for years the dress code in this country has become more and more informal, with suits only featuring where the dress code has remained formal. It’s quite acceptable in many work environments now for people to wear jeans, which traditionally had no place in the office. Dress down Friday has morphed into smart casual all week (with all the issues and insecurities that has produced), and from there to casual clothes in many places. One thing is sure; eventually things will return to a more formal dress code. After all there is nowhere else to go!
When the financial screws are turned and people are nervous about spending their money, it’s interesting to see what they do and don’t choose to wear. This emphasis on formal male clothing in the woman’s wardrobe surely reflects the aspiration to succeed financially, which is represented by the clothes worn in the one environment where formal suits have held on to their place in the office: The City. Investment bankers may not be the flavour of the month in many people’s eyes, but partly this is because they continue to be perceived as personally financially successful, while others are feeling the pinch as a result of their actions. Thus fashion encourages us through this trend to emulate the clothes of those we perceive to be successful against all the odds.
Alongside this in the shops at the moment, sits the retro 1940’s inspired styling which is ultra feminine. Floral print dresses, curvy hourglass silhouettes, sinuous draping, nipped in waists and luxurious faux furs all combine to remind us of another time when the nation struggled to make ends meet. As rationing took hold in WW2 and finances were difficult for so many people, an interesting phenomenon was observed and subsequently researched and described. It came to be known as ‘the lipstick effect’.
It was observed then and has proved to be true since, that women will continue to save for their cosmetics even when finances are really difficult. The theory behind this is that when the chips are down women will still save for the things that make them feel glamorous, sexy, feminine and desirable. I suppose it makes sense. It’s just another way of ensuring that by staying attractive to the opposite gender, theirs are the genes that have the best chance of carrying on when everything else is threatened.
And so, once again the social times we are living through are reflected in our clothes. Whether we admit it or not we are constantly adjusting our appearance to feel part of society, aware at a deep level that others are observing us and picking up on subtle messages about us given out in the way we choose to dress every day. And that’s the point. Every day we get dressed we have a choice about what we do or don’t put on. And this is highly relevant in an increasingly difficult job market. Understanding how to present ourselves, so that we appear capable, effective and already successful really does give us the edge. It will be interesting to see at what rate the formal elements in fashion creep back into the workplace. Certainly as an Image Consultant I’m aware that many companies involved in out placing their staff are ensuring they are provided with information to ensure they are well equipped to understand what their appearance says about them to potential employees.