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The new term pinging around the fashion industry is “bourgeois style.” It’s being used by fashion critics, trendsetters, and fashionistas to indicate the death of streetwear-inspired collections and a return to a more polished, posh, and elegant style for Fall/Winter 2019.
Riccardo Tisci's recent Burberry collections have pushed a modernist and practical approach, with about half of the designer's offerings focusing on well-groomed, high-heeled models strolling down the runway in twinsets, wearing knee-length dresses in an upper-class beige.
Hedi Slimane has embraced a more domestic attitude at Celine for fall, presenting culottes, modest-length skirts, knotted silk scarves, and a Parisian Left Bank attitude for the girls, with sneakerless looks for the guys.
Demna Gvasalia has rediscovered grown-up tailored clothes at Balenciaga, while Kim Jones has toned down the utility at Dior, nodding to the haute couture approach of the house’s founder through dramatic tailored coats, silky effeminate sateen, and a touch of fur.
To understand how surprising the change in mindset is, it’s important to recall that these four designers used to be at the rebellious end of the spectrum. Each came to fashion inspired by youth subcultures, from mods and goths to punks and skateboarders, and fostering a rock and roll persona of their own. But now the insurgent punks appear to have moved to the suburbs and settled down.
So what happened? Are these young designers simply maturing or is something else at play?
Clothing has long been an important public signifier of wealth and social status. People want to feel comfortable in what they wear, both physically and in how they're perceived by others. And if you've been watching long enough, you'll have seen how fashion reflects the world at the time of its creation.
Bourgeois style, strict but showy, embodying conservative agendas regarding class and gender roles, has had its highs and lows at the peak of fashion. There were two famous peaks in the 20th century: one in the ’50s, when retrogressively feminine and ultra-masculine looks triumphed, making young it-girls like Grace Kelly look like mature and respected ladies; and the second in the ’80s, when yuppies in boxy suits framed an era of unrestrained capitalism under the eyes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
What’s interesting is that these waves of bourgeois fashion appeared after radical collapses in the social structure. The first occurred after World War II, while the second happened after the oil crisis and subsequent economic recessions of the ’70s. These were times of massive upheaval. Countries shrunk or suddenly appeared, the subcultures of the ’60s and ’70s challenged orthodoxies, social mobility increased, and women questioned their so-called natural roles.
In this regard, embracing the bourgeois look wasn’t only a nostalgic yearning for beauty as a counterweight to an ugly world. It could also be seen as a striving for order in a world remixed. After all, the bourgeoisie represents the segregation of social categories. It's a Western creation that’s usually white and was born of class differentiation, making the exclusionary nature of bourgeois style and attitude inescapable. Since its early days, its codes have served to crystalize the differences between men and women, higher and lower classes, Eurocentric Western traditions and those of everyone else.
Returning to the present, bourgeoisie-inflected collections are circulating everywhere, from those mentioned above to Fendi's bow ties and blouses and Givenchy, once a pioneer in merging streetwear with high fashion, prioritizing floral frocks, dramatic gowns, and sharp tailoring.
While critics have praised the shift, heralding it as the new way to dress in a post-streetwear era, the point is that you can't bring back a style, a visible social code, without also bringing back its associations. Styles carry meaning. Re-embracing conservative bourgeois style cedes control. Erstwhile rebel designers like Slimane, Tisci, and others, sensitive to the needs of their upper-class clientele, are embodying and — perhaps unconsciously — encouraging a structured social and hierarchical agenda. And with good reason.
The need to “dress up” rather than look “down” for inspiration isn’t surprising if you recognize that the world is facing a major collapse of its social structure once again. Social media, which only a decade ago was seen as a democratic opportunity to give voice to the unheard, has become a major problem for elites who have not only lost their power but now need to deal with its unwanted consequences. Be it Trump, Brexit, or any other anti-elite reaction, their origins lie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like (or to take the fashion road, the 15 million-follower success of questionable fashion brands such as Fashion Nova).
Wearing streetwear-inspired clothes, once seen as unpretentious, fresh, or as a chance to take part in a “democratic fashion revolution,” isn’t cool when you realize you look like everyone else on the street. The bourgeois style was created to demarcate, and as such, applying it must act against inclusivity. Not only does the “proper” look alienate anyone who isn’t “proper,” it amplifies a “correct” way of being. It's fitting that Burberry has declared as part of its new PR message that it’s for “mothers and daughters, fathers, and sons,” a phrase that suggests everyone but in fact echoes the traditional family.
Clothes scream louder than words and fashion is just one of the battlefields in an aesthetic and political war. Each side will work to distinguish itself, using every tool possible to show who's in and who's out.
Liroy Choufan is a lecturer at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design and a fashion writer and researcher based in Tel Aviv.