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The image is fairly straightforward: Hood By Air designer Shayne Oliver, in Vetements’ spring 2016 floral print dress with ruffle details, stands in the middle of the street. To the right, he is being appraised through the window of a truck. To his left, bikers pass by. It is the work of German fine art photographer and homosexual Wolfgang Tillmans for the magazine Fantastic Man, but it bears an uncanny resemblance to this paparazzi snap of Rihanna, also clad in Vetements florals, stalking the streets of Stockholm. (Fashion Bomb Daily declared the look to be “Hmm.”)
Presumably, Oliver in this dress is a fantasy that the magazine’s readers are expected to buy into; shopping credits are listed in the back. I am, admittedly, here for this fantasy. It’s rare for me to stumble across an image in a mainstream magazine that stirs the heart so fondly, an image of someone that suggests you might share a way of moving through the world. Someone who maybe also danced in their mother’s slip when they were five and it’s not that it was a passing fad or a silly faggy thing silly little fags do, but that that slip looked fucking good on you and quite frankly presaged Kate Moss making silk nighties a thing a year or two later.
I can’t afford Vetements’ couture tea dresses, so I opt for its country cousin, a vintage Laura Ashley dress. It fits me similarly to a Gucci duster shown for spring 2017, which is to say that it hangs on my diminutive frame as it would on a mom who hasn’t left the house in awhile. Scratch that — a mom who has chosen not to leave the house indefinitely. I love it, but it’s not exactly sexy. I try again. Online shopping leads me to a Zandra Rhodes number that would fit the frilly bill, but is out of my price range. So I snatch up an ‘80s Maggy London dress with a ruffled skirt. I hold it up to my girlfriend on FaceTime. She is, politely speaking, skeptical. It’s very Attack of the Prom Dress. She is not familiar with Vetements. What would Sienna Miller do? I reach for a leather jacket and search for answers.
It’s worth considering our current state of floral affairs in light of Nicolas Ghesquiere’s spring/summer 2008 collection for Balenciaga, the house at the helm of which Demna Gvasalia now stands. Florals became abstractions of themselves, coming into riotous bloom on army of structural dresses executed with technical aplomb. "I'm exploring new territory, within the references of the house," Ghesquière told Style.com in 2007. And this, just before an election season full of more hope than anyone would right now care to remember. Is it a flight of fancy to suggest that, despite the impending recession, this collection was shown to a world where things seemed a bit more progressive? Or, at the very least, to a world where the house hadn’t just been burned to the ground?
Laird Borrelli-Persson penned her thoughts on the resurgence of “flounced, puffed and laced” dresses for Vogue.com, suggesting that “to choose one is to indulge in nostalgia, to find comfort in clichéd prettiness, and, perhaps, to imagine oneself at home on an idealized range.” If we are to regard these dresses as a kind of urtext for Demna Gvasalia’s mumsy incarnations, one has to wonder why this is happening right now — or, as it were, a few seasons ago, presaging Brexit and Trump. Maybe it’s a reaction against technology and futurism, coming as it is on the heels of the Met’s Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology exhibition, a headwind of Prairie Home Companion-ism to grip the collective fashion consciousness as Facebook lets us down and fake news and a very real threat to our freedoms comes to the fore. Oliver in this dress seems to be taking up space on that idealized range from which queerness is often erased, accessing a softness oft reserved for the Keira Knightleys of the world. But are we running toward or retreating from our uncertain future?
While the current crop of florals feels infinitely more wearable than 2008’s — simply tradition with a new proportion — it more importantly doesn’t seem to be cut from the same cloth at all. It’s less put together, maybe takes itself less seriously. The boho-hedonism currently fueling Gucci’s revival in the hands of Alessandro Michele taps into a similar zeitgeist. Michele’s girls (and boys) don’t seem too concerned with structure, or society— maybe only insofar as they can thwart its expectations. It’s a shade of May ‘68, though the Eurocentrism of it all feels decidedly counter-revolutionary at this point. And that’s where Oliver and HBA come in. Stylist Carlos Nazario posts the Fantastic Man spread on Instagram, calling Oliver “my bro and sis” and declaring him a “pretty princess.” It is supposed to communicate something about gender binaries, or play with the idea of them in some way, I think, showing Oliver in suits and then also in dresses. An old Betsey Johnson advert featuring Prince comes to mind. The singer strikes a pageant-esque pose in a tight-fitting, voluminously-sleeved dress next to the copy: “Inside every prince there’s a princess dying to show her hairy décoletté in a Betsey Johnson. Charming.”
Today, in 2017, the language of latent femininity searching for an escape valve feels decidedly retro — and not in an indulgent, nostalgic way. Men aren't playing dress-up, but fundamentally shifting their relationship with clothing, floral and otherwise. Or they could be. The story's writer, Bijan Stephens, notes that seeing Oliver in HBA’s “gender-fucked” clothing is “instantly arresting.” But is it particularly new? Gender is prescriptive and tied to the eye of the (biased) beholder; the fucking of it becomes emotional labor queer people are forced to do. Does Oliver want to be “arresting” or just run to the bank? What feels fresh, and refreshing, is acknowledging that this isn’t a game, or a moment to be captured in time and then thrown away once the cameras are out of sight and out of mind. Is it an idealized vision? Maybe. But it’s an important one. An expanded one. Oliver reforming fashion history through his work — and his fantastic, flouncy presence.