Nothing is more radical in fashion than an even slightly rounded thigh or tummy. At Paris haute couture fashion week, Valentino challenged the catwalk’s last taboo by using models whose bodies were mostly close to average size, rather than super skinny. With the elegant understatement for which his dresses are known, designer Pierpaolo Piccioli observed simply that he “thought it was time for a change.”
The enduring hegemony of the size zero ideal in fashion has been obscured by the trend for using one or two token ‘plus size’ models in a show – often dressed in longer, looser garments than their slender colleagues, lest their flesh offend. Here, by contrast, leather-look satin hugged normal-sized curves, and sharp thigh-high splits in silk faille skirt flashed glimpses of soft thigh. Bustier dress met skin with a hint of softly oozing flesh, rather than with the clang of zipper against shoulderblade.
Fashion has trailed behind culture in clinging rigidly to model proportions unchanged in a century. Valentino looked dreamier than ever on more relatable bodies which showed off Piccioli’s skill as a couturier – a factor that will, perhaps, prompt other designers to follow suit. “The message does not change in its purpose, which is to convey beauty, but in its welcoming expression,” said the designer.
Haute couture, where dresses are made to order with six figure pricetags, is a unlikely conduit for the winds of modernity, but Piccioli believes that the symbolism of diversity in fashion’s highest echelon is powerful. In five years he has revolutionised what was once a bastion of patrician glamour into one of fashion’s more progressive names. A house forged in the image of its permatanned founder Valentino Garavani, who dressed Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor and had a sofa installed on his private jet for his beloved pugs, now stands for inclusivity. This show’s casting “reflects the richness and diversity of the contemporary world and …an idea of beauty that is not absolute,” Piccioli said.
Two years ago, when a Valentino couture catwalk featured a cast of 65 models, 43 of whom were black, Piccioli said that “although [couture] celebrates uniqueness, which is a synonym for diversity, it has always meant to be [sic] for white people.” He told Vogue that in the context of rising anti-immigration feeling in his native Italy “to have a Roman brand represented by Black beauty goes against all the xenophobia in Italy.”
This week’s Paris haute couture shows have seen a near return to live events, although with smaller audiences due to there being few visitors from Asia. However, the run up to New York fashion week, which begins in two weeks, has been hit by announcements of delays. Tom Ford, whose show had been scheduled for the closing night of the New York shows, has cancelled the event, citing Covid-related delays. “We have struggled internally over the past month with many of our staff out with Covid in our design studio and atelier in Los Angeles as well as in our factories in Italy … [we] are faced with the sad fact that we will simply not have a completed collection in time.” Designer Thom Browne also cited manufacturing delays as a factor in the postponement of his show from February’s fashion week to an April date adjacent to the Met Gala, New York’s most star-studded annual fashion party.