By David Livingstone
Louis Vuitton show for Spring 2012 opened with the tinkling of a music box and the rising of a scrim to reveal a carousel carrying girls in pale dresses on cream-coloured ponies. It might have seemed a saccharine set-up, but such a response could just be a bad case of not getting it. The news of the season is gentle news. That’s what Marc Jacobs got so right at Louis Vuitton. All the white and those whitened pastels—a key colour trend, favoured by both traditionalists such as Ralph Lauren and more experimental types such as Christopher Kane and Hussein Chalayan—might have appeared to be borrowed from a bag of miniature marshmallows. But the candied palette was not there simply to satisfy a sweet tooth. It also appeals to a Bluetooth appetite when dished out in fabrics that are marvels of modern technology—things like foam organza, silk cellophane and laser-cut leatherette. For the theory-minded, it’s tempting to conclude from the fact that we live in times when you see toddlers dressed in skull patterns and infants swaddled in camo-print blankets that it’s only logical their moms should start playing with pink and baby blue.
There is a dreamy innocence to a lot of this spring’s collections—all the soft tints, the floral patterns, the daisies, the roses—but it’s not to be mistaken for immaturity. The shoes at Louis Vuitton featured childish Mary Jane straps on high-heeled mules, the most kick-offable footwear ever invented and not intended for kids’ play. The clothes, too, had a way of blending sugar and spice. There was a mild-looking jacket that » was made from powdered crocodile, with zippered pockets that a biker chick might want and a flared peplum that recalled the womanly silhouette of Dior in the late 1940s. (The word “peplum” goes back to ancient Greece and is derived from peplos, a kind of outer robe or shawl.) These flounces, ruffles and clean lines also framed the hips of models walking at Céline, Giorgio Armani and Jason Wu.
It’s undeniable that fashion this spring is out to celebrate the female form. Besides the peplum attracting attention to the waist and hips, there are also bras, bandeaus and cropped tops to expose the midriff, as it was at Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Emilio Pucci, Oscar de la Renta, Missoni, Alexander Wang and, most unapologetically, Prada. Miuccia did it in the name of sweetness, not to scare us with the ghost of Britney. In fact, several pop stars, Katy Perry being the most inescapable, have toyed with cartoon visions of femininity.
But there was nothing infantile about the bare bellies at Prada. Bandeaus went under jackets of loose, utilitarian cut and were worn with pleated skirts, which were not hiked up schoolgirl-style but fell to a graceful longer length, making for a balance between brazen and demure. There were echoes of a ladylike refinement in the jewellery at Prada as well. The drop earrings seemed particularly sedate compared to some of the collection’s more raffish references, such as the images of big-finned automobiles that appeared in prints or the hot-rod flames shooting from the heels of shoes. Similarly, at Jil Sander, designer Raf Simons used accessories to lend an edge of aged authority to the clothes, a rare move given fashion is more likely to promote mutton dressed as lamb than to suggest that young women might learn from following the example of their elders. In this same show there were pantsuits, even some with short pants, worn by models with Grace Kelly–smooth hair, as if to salute the soignée coiffure of yesteryear. Sometimes that hair was topped by hats with veils reminiscent of old-time millinery and old-school propriety.
Conforming to conventional standards can also have a downside. In presenting her spring Comme des Garçons collection, Rei Kawakubo showed nothing but girls in white dresses. They were beautiful dresses; with their elaborate rosettes and big satin bows, they looked fancy enough to be ceremonial. But built like cages that looked like bell jars, with arms encumbered, even bound together by shiny ribbons, they were at once a celebration of the mode and a call for manners.