Watching the ’40s- and ’50s-inspired looks that floated down the runways this season, I was put in mind of the painters in Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women, whose prim sweaters and pencil skirts concealed a broad hint of subversion. Buttoned-up, cinched silhouettes may have once looked impossibly dull and conservative. In our current epoch of elastic-waist everything, they feel as refreshing as the dry martinis their wearers once enjoyed.
Whether it’s because designers have wrung so much inspiration out of more recent decades or because the faraway-seeming optimism of the postwar years feels poignant in a time of crisis, the hallmarks of the era dominated this season, from Givenchy’s sharp caped dresses to Proenza Schouler’s portrait necklines to JW Anderson’s soft-yet-strong rounded shoulders and bubble silhouettes.
When Joseph Altuzarra delved into his grandparents’ wardrobes for his fall collection, he knew he wanted to create clothes that would feel like future keepsakes. Antique garments, the designer says, “become vessels for storytelling and markers of time,” and he wanted to incorporate their creased, aged quality into the garments he created. The resulting collection was “about the passage of time and the poetry in that,” Altuzarra says. His Chinese grandmother’s East-meets-West wardrobe of cheongsams with Western prints or Asian florals on Western silhouettes inspired the prints and tailoring; the office-drone gray flannel of his grandfather’s suits appeared in multiple looks, with the suiting, appropriately enough, deconstructed for 2020.
JW Anderson’s collection drew on the periods after both World Wars. “Two moments of anxiety and stress created opposing ideas,” the designer says. “In the ’20s, you had this idea of cleanliness after the [Spanish flu] pandemic, and then in the Second World War you had this utilitarian [theme], which was about salvage,” he says, citing the emphasis on reuse due to rationing. (Call it the dawn of now-trendy upcycling.)
And though Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez didn’t explicitly look to the time period this…