When Kylie Jenner stepped out during Paris Fashion Week in January with a large lion’s head fastened to a strapless black gown, she launched a thousand TikToks.
While Maison Schiaparelli is no stranger to incorporating shock factor into their runways, Jenner wearing the gown — which also appeared in their catwalk presentation — was the fashion house’s dramatic re-entry into the world after a period of relative stasis, when it was essentially a ‘sleeping beauty‘ brand.
“This [runway] is definitely harnessing the power of media, fashion, virality and circulation of images,” Ricarda Bigolin, a fashion and textile design academic at RMIT University, told ABC RN’s Blueprint For Living.
“[Runways] are promotional devices; they’re not for entertainment, even though we might think they are, they’re actually to generate sales.”
While the ordinary consumer isn’t going to go out and buy a dress festooned with a life-size animal’s head, they may remember Jenner’s dress when buying their next perfume.
But high fashion can also be a way to talk about contemporary issues, says Dr Emily Brayshaw, a theatre costume designer and lecturer in design and fashion history at the University of Technology Sydney.
For instance, the Schiaparelli lion’s head was made from synthetic materials: “[It speaks to] this high-fashion history of luxury and fur, but really translates it in a wholly contemporary way … [and] it’s getting us to question our relationship to animals and the environment,” Brayshaw told ABC Arts.
Jenner’s runway-adjacent moment is just the latest example in a long history of spectacle on and around the runway; shocking moments that speak to larger changes in politics, society, art and technology.
Warning: this article contains nudity.
In the 1910s, French dance hall star and international celebrity Gaby Deslys collaborated with Parisian haute couture house Jeanne Paquin on a series of so-called “Gaby gowns”.
Paquin was among a number of “haute couturiers [who] were mixing with the Parisian artistic avant-garde and creating new ways of seeing and being in the world,” Brayshaw says.
Deslys’s gowns, designed by French designer and fashion illustrator Etienne Drian for Paquin, were touted as “liable to create much discussion”.
They included a cloak made from an entire leopard skin.
While Deslys didn’t walk any runways, she did take these avant-garde designs, influenced by cubism, futurism, and modernism, to theatres around the world while on tour.
She caused the kind of media ruckus that money can’t buy, says Brayshaw: “On an American tour in 1913/1914, the Americans panned [these clothes]. They were like: ‘What is this?’ It didn’t read for American women at this time who just wanted to look pretty.”
Italian-born, Paris-based designer Elsa Schiaparelli (aka Coco Chanel’s arch-nemesis) was so obsessed with jaw-dropping fashion that she made “shocking pink” her signature colour from the 30s onwards.
RMIT’s Ricarda Bigolin says: “[The 30s] was a time in between World Wars where there were a lot of ideals and optimism in the world, fashion had this playful edge … women started dressing very differently at this time, there were less restrictions on the female body [such as corsets].”
Schiaparelli drew inspiration from and collaborated with the Surrealists, creating a number of shocking designs that subverted traditional ideas of dress.
These included her lobster dress, shoe hat and skeleton dress — a long black gown with a rib cage made with quilting — all created with Salvador Dali.
Brayshaw explains: “Dali and the Surrealists’ world view was very playful … but it’s also about deconstructing reality and dreams, and we’re seeing [in the skeleton dress] the outside displayed on the inside as well, which is always controversial in fashion.”
Fashion started to democratise mid-century with the expansion of ready-to-wear lines, which led to a momentary pause in shocking runways.
Bigolin says: “The really shocking stuff started happening in the 80s.”
This was the start of the era of the supermodel, the celebrity fashion designer, and of high-end fashion brands hocking perfumes, sunglasses and bags.
In 1984, Thierry Mugler — a French designer famous for dressing pop stars such as Madonna, Grace Jones and Duran Duran — packed out Paris’s Zénith arena with more than 6,000 fans for his 10th anniversary show. For the finale, Black American model Pat Cleveland, six months pregnant at the time, descended from the roof dressed as the Virgin Mary.
Brayshaw says that although Catholicism was beginning to lose relevance in much of the Western world in this era, “Catholic imagery and iconography is incredibly glamorous and it is also related to spectacle, because historically it’s how the church got bums on seats.
“So you’ve got people leaning into that in the fashion world and exploring these ideas of whiteness, and you’ve got second-wave feminism in the 80s, with women increasingly in the workplace and fighting for equal rights. So a lot of these big ideas are all coming together on the body of Pat Cleveland.”
Dutch fashion house Viktor & Rolf’s fall 1999 runway cemented its reputation as a catwalk provocateur: While model Maggie Rizer stood on a rotating platform, designers Rolf Snoeren and Viktor Horsting dressed her in a succession of layers, like a reverse Russian doll.
“At this time, you’ve got anxiety for the new millennia, you’ve got Gen X really coming of age and starting to break down ideas. We’re slowly coming out of the AIDS crisis and we’re also coming out of 90s ideas around heroin chic and the display of bodies,” says Brayshaw.
“[This runway is] riffing on all of these ideas of packing ourselves and cocooning ourselves and protecting ourselves at this anxious time.”
It also references the history of clothing (which traditionally involved many layers, including corsets, petticoats and girdles) while subverting the 90s fashion trends of minimal and grunge.
Bigolin adds: “[Viktor and Rolf] were often playfully exploring how hard it was to make these shows, and queering the politics around the production of these shows.”
Alexander McQueen, British fashion iconoclast, was also known for his shocking 90s runways, where models had to contend with elements including water, fire, and a robot wielding spray-paint.
Then in 2000, he executed a stunning coup de théâtre for his collection Voss: After keeping the audience waiting for two hours with nothing to look at but a mirrored glass cube, he raised the lights to reveal the models trapped behind two-way mirrors in an asylum-like room.
Brayshaw says: “It really forced the fashionistas to take a long, hard look at themselves.”
At the end of the show, the glass walls of a massive cube on stage fell down, smashing, to reveal the naked figure of plus-size fetish writer Michelle Olley, wearing a ghoulish oxygen mask and covered in live moths.
“It’s playing on these strong juxtapositions of bodies and body types, and how we view and value different bodies,” says Brayshaw.
“Also in true McQueen fashion, they’re [the clothes] incredibly beautifully done … [He’s asking] what we consider to be abject and beautiful, and making us question: Are they really so different?”
Bigolin says recent runways have reflected contemporaneous conversations about women’s rights, diversity and inclusion.
In 2015, American fashion designer Rick Owens sent models down the runway with gymnasts strapped to them like human backpacks.
“[Owens is exploring] the strength of women and how strong women have to be to carry the weight of the world,” says Brayshaw.
Bigolin says Owens was exploring “the power of the body and really thinking about the standards of the body, because there are great differences [between] this very standardised [fashion] model and the actual body of real [gymnasts].”
There have always been designers at the fringes of high-end fashion challenging who gets to walk the runway — for example, by casting older or plus-sized models.
Then in 2018 Virgil Abloh, who founded streetwear label Off-White, became the first African American artistic director of Louis Vuitton.
For his menswear debut for the house, the runway presentation predominantly featured Black models and other models of colour.
Brayshaw says: “It’s a pretty sad indictment of the fashion industry globally if using Black models causes shock, because for 100 years we’ve had runways with only white models. Abloh is critiquing the historical whiteness of fashion.”
2018 was also the year that Beyoncé and Jay-Z took over the Louvre to film the video for their song Apeshit.
“You’ve got this big questioning in popular culture of the relationships of fashion and high art to Blackness,” Brayshaw says.
“[Fashion] shows can get us talking and thinking about wider discussions in society, whether that’s the intention of the show or not,” says Brayshaw.
Case in point: Australian Fashion Week’s 2021 closing show was a Future of Fashion runway that featured clothes from Australian designers including Romance Was Born, P.E. Nation and Camilla.
But IMG Focus, the creative agency behind the event, hadn’t considered whether the show’s wheelchair users, model Lisa Cox and Paralympian Rheed McCracken, would be able to navigate a runway strewn with streamers and confetti.
Disabled creator and activist Keely B told Fashion Journal: “If they [the Australian fashion industry] can’t even make a runway accessible, it’s scary to think about the wider inclusion in this industry. It really just shows that there isn’t any.”
Riffing on McQueen’s 1999 spray-paint dress, French brand Coperni dramatically sprayed a dress onto Bella Hadid as part of their runway presentation for the 2022 Paris Fashion Week.
“It’s critiquing the relationship between fashion and bodies and dress,” says Brayshaw.
“[For] decades and decades and decades, we’ve talked about skin-tight clothes as if they’re being sprayed on, and this is quite literally doing that.”
Coperni used an impressive-looking technology (Fabrican, which was actually invented in 2003) to generate virality — but technological advances have always impacted fashion shows, from innovations in lighting to the use of video, projection and streaming.
Bigolin explains: “The internet really changed these shows … in [the] 1980s and 1990s, shows were often down this long, narrow runway, this elevated platform, and there was a lot of posing and standing at the end, theatrics and waving to the crowd.
“But now most runways are really nonstop walking … because it really helps with the live feed when all of the people in the front row can just quickly stream. It’s just so fast and digestible.”
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