Femininity and strength are not mutually exclusive. I know that. If you’re reading this, you probably know that. And the world is slowly (very, very slowly) but surely recognizing this fact. Even so, for most people, the term 'power dressing' conjures images of women in menswear-inspired looks. In the eighties, when power dressing as we know it was in full swing, women were donning strong-shouldered suits as they shattered the glass ceiling in politics and business. In order to compete with men and be taken seriously by men, they dressed like men. And while yes, at the time, there was a revolutionary freedom in appropriating the so-called stronger sex’s aesthetic for their benefit, women were also, in a sense, doing it for men—to prove to men that they were equals. Today, we’re a bit more evolved.
Now don’t misunderstand—there’s nothing wrong with suits. Suits are fabulous. Suits with sex appeal, like Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic 1966 'Le Smoking', are irresistible. There’s something decadent about suits with relaxed cuts that subvert their formality, like those offered by Haider Ackermann this season. The sculptural blazers at Casey Cadwallader’s Mugler debut were striking, and Demna Gvasalia’s eighties silhouettes at Balenciaga were razor sharp. But during the S/S 19 Paris shows, it was exciting to see designers like Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanabe, Miuccia Prada, Virgil Abloh, and more celebrating feminine strength in feminine ways. It was almost as though these designers were reclaiming traditional femininity—frequently associated with delicacy or fragility—and employing it as the beautiful, unstoppable quality it is.
This embrace of the 'feminine' aesthetic comes at an interesting time. For starters, it’s happening when many designers, most notably Gucci’s Alessandro Michele and Maison Margiela’s John Galliano, are casting the idea of 'men’s' and 'women’s' clothing aside, asserting that gender is a social construct and that everything sent down the runway is for everyone. More significantly, it arrives in the wake of #MeToo, #TimesUp, the Kavanaugh hearings, and Bill Cosby’s sentencing for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand. In this moment, women are fighting back, speaking out, and claiming our power. In fact, 'female power' was the phrase I heard most this season, whether it was from designers discussing their own collections or from editors and showgoers talking about what they’d seen—or wanted to see.
Virgil Abloh offered that in spades at Off-White, where he presented perhaps the clearest blend of traditional femininity and power. Sending elite athletes down his runway—a mock running track—alongside supers like Karlie, Kendall, and Kaia, Abloh showed huge tulle ball skirts with sporty performance tops. These recalled the custom, ballet-inspired ensembles the designer recently created in collaboration with Nike for Serena Williams, one of the strongest (literally and figuratively) women in sports today. Newcomer Marine Serre also merged sport and femininity for her second-ever runway romp, most memorably with a mermaid gown made from scuba material, the layered, printed-ruffle hem of which danced as the model walked.
Junya Watanabe championed femininity’s different forms and facets through complex techniques and masterful construction. The Japanese designer offered fifties-style skirts and frocks fashioned from a combination of deconstructed denim (which, in one case, was transformed into precise pleats), white wedding dress-worthy lace, and tulle. Sometimes, what looked like a formal frock from one side was a par of overalls on the other, and his voluminous skirts and dresses were paired with t-shirts or jean trousers.
In his sophomore runway outing, Noir Kei Ninomiya proposed femininity as armor. His protective confections, which often fully enveloped the model, were made of the most delicate components, like black PVC ruffles and rosettes or strips of organdy that resembled flower petals. These punkish delights were at once intricate and bold—not unlike the essence of femininity itself.
Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, whose show opened with Kristin McMenamy in a billowing, black, cotton, off-the-shoulder gown, looked to traditional, ultra-feminine couture and ornate techniques (embroidery, embellishment, and the like), but his arresting clothes never made the models appear ornamental. The garments accented the wearer, rather than hindering or overpowering her. Meanwhile, Miuccia Prada’s Miu Miu ladies were unapologetically feminine, as they always are, with rosettes, miniskirts, denim teamed with crystal baubles, and platform heels. Prada once again turned femininity on its head, taking ownership of what might be seen as sexualized dressing and injecting a healthy dose of quirk.
It was at Comme des Garçons, however, where the message about femininity and female strength was most profound. Rei Kawakubo’s somber, intimate show opened with a model in a deconstructed, suiting-style jumpsuit. It was covered in shimmering fringe and slit open at the stomach, revealing the model’s padded belly. The designer opened her runway by alluding to what many view as the most powerful aspect of femininity and womanhood: pregnancy and motherhood. These mothers-to-be were followed by models with chains dangling from their wrists and affixed to their ankles, the metal jangling with each deliberate step. The unlikely accessories could, perhaps, be interpreted as a reference to the enduring female struggle. But these models weren’t tethered to anything. It was as if they’d broken free from their oppressors. Elsewhere, there were full-skirted coats and dresses with big bows and more protrusions, this time growing out of hips and derrieres. The sculptural shapes recalled those seen in Kawakubo’s seminal S/S 97 'Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body' (aka 'Lumps and Bumps') collection, which distorted the oft objectified female form. Kawakubo’s women walked with purpose, as if they’d experienced the weight of the world and were stronger for it, returning to tell us their tales. No shackles could contain them.
Fashion has come a long way since the power suits of the eighties. So have women and our understanding of gender. Real sartorial strength, of course, comes from being true to yourself—from dressing in a manner that makes you feel most comfortable, happy, or spectacular. But what Paris’ S/S 19 shows reminded us is that women are strong in any form. So if you prefer a frilled dress over a minimalist pair of slacks, go ahead, lean in, and dress up.