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Jharna Pariani

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“I hope we can still be friends”, “I really need to focus on my career right now”, or worst yet, “It’s not you, it’s me”. Breakups are hard and sometimes.

Bouncing back from heartbreak is even harder. The cure? Taking on a defiant sense of style could just be what the doctor (or Fashion Psychologist) ordered.

Back with a vengeance

Some of the tried and tested ways to heal after a recent breakup involve belting out the lyrics to I Will Survive, drowning your sorrows in some chocolate or rewatching Eat, Pray, Love for the 100th time. But once that phase is over, it’s how we decide to pick up the pieces and move on that matters the most. Some women choose to power through it all by putting the focus back
on themselves — and more often than not — this includes revamping their self-image. It could happen through changing your hairstyle, dialling up your fitness routine or by resorting to a complete wardrobe makeover.

The ‘revenge dress’ was a term coined by the British press in reference to Princess Diana’s knockout little black dress that she wore to the Serpentine Gallery the same evening Prince Charles confessed to his adultery with Camilla in a televised documentary. A true pioneer of the ‘revenge dressing’ phenomenon, Diana’s sartorial choices after her separation were so iconic that they went onto inspire the Instagram account @ladydirevengelooks which has now amassed over 100k followers. The account is dedicated to a well- documented feed full of her revenge style featuring funny captions that are incomplete without its cheeky trademark hashtag #FYouCC .

We got in touch with the creator of @ladydirevengelooks , Eloise Moran, a Los Angeles-based British writer who claimed that she was going through a break up herself right before she created the Instagram account. Moran was touched by the late Princess Diana’s story after watching her documentary ‘Diana: In Her Own Words’, which led her down the internet rabbit hole where she stumbled across a goldmine of looks. From the looks of it, it was “highly obvious that this was a revenge wardrobe”, which then sparked Moran’s interest in sharing them on Instagram.

When asked as to how she concluded them to be a form of revenge dressing, Moran responded:

There is a clear distinction in her style as a member of the Royal Family and post-break-up. The clearest example is if you notice her transition between the early ’80s & late ’80s — she went from having this sweet country girl look to full-on Hollywood, a strategic move on her part, especially since the press attention she received during this time drove Prince Charles wild with jealousy.”

A renewed sense of self

Research claims that it’s quite normal for broken-hearted individuals to feel the need to discard their previously held ‘sense of self’ that was linked to the defunct relationship by changing one’s appearance after a breakup. Moran asserts that revenge dressing was also Diana’s way of leaving the past behind following her separation with Prince Charles.

These changes were visibly apparent in the way Diana dressed or even held herself, “everything from her wardrobe, her hairstyles, to her demeanour changed.” Diana was labelled as ‘Shy Di’ by the press in the ‘80s because “she would always look down and make cheeky sideways glances”, but later, in the ’90s “she held her head high and wasn’t afraid to show a little bit of leg with shorter dresses and skirts.”

According to Moran, “This was a clear signifier that she was breaking away from the rigid dress codes of royal life and royal life itself. She was almost as tall as Charles, so in the ’90s you see her heels getting a lot higher (always Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik), once she was no longer with him — similar to what Nicole Kidman did after her break-up with Tom Cruise.”

Moran considers it quite normal for individuals going through a break-up to approach it like this, “it’s a grieving process, you’re letting go and trying to invite newness into your life”.

She claims that the way broken-hearted individuals try and change their physical appearance has a lot to do with the self-manifestation of a fresh start. 

Fellow writer at Fashion is Psychology, Diba Jedo agrees, “Switching up your appearance after a breakup can feel rather cathartic.” In Jedo’s opinion, “Revenge dressing can be a freeing form of expressing oneself without the need for permission or acceptance.”

It’s pretty evident that as we discard our old selves that once held us back, the clothes we then pick and how we choose to style them can speak volumes on their own. Just like all methods of expression — especially those as ambiguous as fashion — revenge dressing can be powerfully articulate. It could be a way for women to be rebellious, to assert our freedom, to give off a vibe, to arrest attention, to intimidate or to seduce.

While the idea of revenge dressing may have gained significant popularity in the past year as we all dream of walking out of the pandemic in our most decked out looks — the sentiment around the concept remains the same. The revenge dress, an aspirational style that differs from person to person, is a means to break free from a sad state of mind and emerge as a stronger and more confident individual.

After all, nothing says “look at what you’ve missed out on” quite like a hot new look. Consider it healthier take on the hotly debated and problematic Kardashian concept of attaining a ‘revenge body’ after a breakup.

Fashion in the nineties and early noughties looked a lot different than it does now; magazines were rife with titillating imagery, designer billboards left little to imagination, while the runways brimmed with sexual undertones.

Fashion’s blue period

Younger millennials will remember that time as a pivotal period in fashion, unlike today, where the Kardashian-Jenner influence has pushed the fashion envelope and made it seem over-sexualised. Back then, provocative style still had some shock value — not only did it provoke but it also oozed of aspirational glamour, and people were buying it.

Take Tom Ford’s reign at Gucci (who helmed the brand from 1994- 2004), where he managed to pull the Italian luxury fashion house out of bankruptcy and generate growth worth 1.3 billion euros within the decade that he served as its creative director. His secret? Sex. Ford injected the brand with hedonistic luxury and scandalous ad campaigns that proved to be a veritable success.

Calvin Klein was no stranger to this formula either, some of his most iconic fashion campaigns from the ’90s feature a waif-like Kate Moss who was almost always in the nude. Considered highly controversial at the time, Klein’s ads even went on to gain a FBI probe after critics lashed out at them as bordering on child pornography. Proving that ‘nothing really does come between them and their Calvins’, the brand continues to stand by its formulaic success on suggestive underwear ad campaigns even today.

What is it about provocative imagery that gets us all so triggered? A consumer research study suggests that when a sensory input (like a sexually suggestive visual) is presented to the consumer, a disequilibrium (imbalanced) state may be created since the visual is associated with an innate motive (sexual activity). The psychological & perhaps physiological tension which is produced by the disequilibrium could potentially cause increased cognitive activity directed towards the visual.

The example that best demonstrates this theory is when Jennifer Lopez attended the 2000 Grammy Awards in a barely there Versace dress that quite literally broke the internet. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt revealed there were so many searches for photos of the dress thereafter, that it inspired them to create Google Images. But do racy visuals have the same effect even today?

NSFW advertising in woke times

The titillating imagery that worked well once upon a time has lost its allure somewhere along the way. A recent study on the effectiveness of sexualization in advertising showed that; women expressed higher negative emotions as a reaction to both female and male sexualised ads, while men reportedly showed indifferent emotions toward female sexualised ads but reacted rather negatively to the ones that sexualised males.

A lot has changed in a matter of two decades, the study further states that over the course of time people may have developed an appreciation for a variety of female and male model ads that go beyond sexualisation — a possibility that would help explain mostly negative reactions toward sexualised visuals.

However, after a year spent in lockdown stricken with pandemic-induced loneliness, The Business of Fashion claims that sex might just be back in fashion. Not to be confused with the high-octane sexualisation from the nineties, BoF said that:

The industry has taken pains to show that it has modernised its views on sexuality by putting the focus on romance, intimacy and featuring queer or gender-nonconforming models. And in the post- #MeToo era, many images are being shot by photographers who claim their goal is to portray sex independent of the heterosexual, male gaze.”

Whether or not this trend will stick, one thing is certain — fashion’s love for provocation may never go away.

Girls in pink, boys in blue; it’s hard to believe that these dated notions were once deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. But as time evolves, so does fashion.

A look back in time

Gender fluidity and its expression through clothing is not all that new. Research claims that the earliest cultures simply regarded cross-dressing as one variation in human behaviour, whereas men and women belonging to indigenous tribes often dressed the same.

Throughout history, menswear exhibited heavy hints of femininity while women only cross-dressed under disguise until they publicly began embracing androgyny in the 20th century. During the early 1700s, it was normal for men to wear high-heeled shoes with silk stockings, while long-haired wigs were customary among wealthy men. 

Before the 20th century, women were shamed for cross-dressing in men’s outfits. It wasn’t until the 1920s that women’s clothing finally gained liberation and did away with tightly laced corsets, bustled skirts and puffy sleeves. Women began embracing the androgynous look, also known as ‘La garçonne’, revolutionised by Coco Chanel who paved the way for women’s trousers through her masculine-feminine aesthetic. In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent furthered the cause by introducing ‘Le Smoking’, a tuxedo look for women that became an embodiment of sexual empowerment

Thereafter, women weren’t questioned or penalised for wearing trousers again. Women are now revered as ‘power dressers’ for donning sharp suits and enjoy the freedom of easily switching between both masculine and feminine styles. However, men haven’t enjoyed the same level of acceptance and freedom for embracing femininity.

Tipping the gender balance

Alok Vaid-Menon

The gender non-conforming writer and performance artist is often trolled for their feminine fashion on social media. In their pursuit to #DeGenderFashion they stated that: “Moving beyond the gender binary means that we appreciate how everyone — regardless of their identity — is hurt by gender norms that value people for an ideal of what they ‘should be’ not for who they ‘actually are’.” 

Billy Porter

The American actor dubs himself as a “walking piece of political art”, shares a similar sentiment. He wishes to break the narrative that finds femininely styled men to be repulsive. He rested his case by adding: “I’m a man in a dress and if I feel like wearing a dress, I’m going to wear one.”  

Is the idea of gender non-conformity really that far-fetched? Studies of the collective unconscious, theorise that either sex is inhabited by the opposite sex up to a point. For a man, this represents the female personification of his unconscious and for the woman, a male one. Suggesting that these qualities don’t just exist innately but extend to our outward projections as well.

Fashioning fluidity 

Today, the dated heteronormative approach to fashion is slowly changing and a more inclusive, gender-fluid ideology is taking its place. Brands like Telfar, Gucci, Harris Reed, Nicopanda and Rad Hourani are already making non-conformist fashion mainstream. While fashion weeks are also playing catch-up as they slowly adapt to showing a gender-fluid format. 

Last year, Harry Styles graced the cover of Vogue in a Gucci jacket and dress that garnered mixed reviews. As a reaction, Vaid-Menon took to their social media to state that trans folk of colour don’t receive praise for doing the same thing every day, but they were equally appreciative of the cover being “a sign of progress of society’s evolution away from binary gender.” 

The Gender Fluid Fashion Report states that there has been a massive uptick in search interest for fashion items that have been mainly spotted on both men and women in the past year. The interest in these items spiked due to pop-culture phenomena, including celebrities like Styles.

Gender is no longer just limited to male and female — or pink and blue — but is now a spectrum of non-conforming identities and fashion is beginning to reflect that.  

As fashion trends get increasingly laid-back to suit our isolated way of life, unisex styles have found the perfect opportunity to make a comeback.

Men and women have probably shared a fragrance, moisturiser or hair product more than once during their lifetime. But why should finding common ground be limited to the beauty cabinet alone, when it can easily extend to our wardrobes as well? 

 The middle ground

A bunch of brands set out to answer this very question when they launched a series of matching unisex loungewear late last year. Brands like ASOS, Ace and Prince and Les Girls Les Boys, were quick to offer an array of colour co-ordinated genderless styles during stay at home orders that didn’t take long to start trending on social media. 

Although it could be tempting to view the conscious coupling of matching loungewear sets through a heteronormative lens, unisex fashion speaks to a larger movement at hand — a younger generation who are actively ripping up the gender binary.

 Addressing the de-gendered generation

A study found that Gen-Zers aren’t keen on defining themselves through a single stereotype but rather as individuals who experiment with different ways of being themselves. Retail insights echo this as 56% of Gen-Z consumers are reportedly shopping outside of their assigned gendered area. But unisex fashion hasn’t exactly been all-inclusive.

Most genderless styles today are largely skewed towards men’s clothing styles. As demonstrated with the matching loungewear sets, oversized shapes and boxy silhouettes have become a low-risk choice for fashion brands to place their bets on. 

Designers Stella McCartney and Regina Pyo have also introduced unisex capsules on their online retail platforms, but are playing it safe with masculine separates. Feminine styles like skirts and dresses or even details like frills and ruffles have yet to become commonplace in unisex representation. Even today, most fashion e-commerce sites continue to divide their merchandise under the binaries of men and women.

 The promising road ahead

But fashion weeks have never been one to turn down an opportunity to break gender-norms. The Autumn/Winter 2020 menswear shows were full of effeminate looks. Designers like Gucci, Loewe and Ludovic de Saint Sernine chose to dress their male models in frocks, metallic gowns, skirts and diaphanous tops

As the pandemic brought to light how outdated the old format of fashion shows were, a group of independent designers, executives and retailers from around the world teamed up with The Business of Fashion to put forth a proposal for #rewiringfashion. The proposal included a plea to combine men’s and women’s fashion weeks and de-gender them. With over 2,000 signatories, changes were immediately afoot at London Fashion Week when the British Fashion Council announced that they would merge womenswear and menswear into one gender-neutral platform. 

Across Europe, brands like Prada, Peter Pilotto and Gucci have independently opted to go gender-neutral as well. 

As fashion progressively blurs the lines between male and female, it begs the question: Whether the future of fashion will be separated by gender at all.