It is a truism of the history of dress that decade-defining looks generally don’t congeal until quite late in the period they eventually come to represent. The miniskirts and Crayola colors of the 1960s, the power shoulders of the ’80s, the minimalism of the ’90s — all reached critical mass well into the midpoint of those eras, when whatever had been bubbling up in wardrobes and on sidewalks found its reflection in the wider world.
Well, we have finally reached that stage in the 2010s. The tectonic plates of fashion have shifted. Look around. What do you see?
Look to the runway: During the recent round of fashion shows, suits — and sleeves and long skirts — dominated. Look to the street, and the stores.
“Women who once bought strapless dresses with a little skirt are now buying evening gowns with sleeves and high necks,” said Claire Distenfeld, the owner of Fivestory, the destination boutique on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “Four seasons ago we couldn’t sell a blouse, and now everyone wants a blouse. Young women who used to come in and buy Balmain’s nonexistent dresses are leaving with knee-length skirts with a sweater or blouse by Emilia Wickstead.”Modesty on the Runway13 PhotosView Slide Show›ImageValerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times
And speaking of Balmain — even that label offered long knits, long sleeves and long crocodile skins among the short-’n’-fringed styles in its last collection.
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Look to the red carpet: There was Ruth Negga owning the last awards season in a series of generously sleeved frocks, and then showing up at the Oscars almost entirely covered in red Valentino — long sleeves, high neck, long skirt — and making pretty much every top 10 best-dressed list of the night. Ditto Jessica Biel (in long-sleeved, high-necked, floor-length gold KaufmanFranco) and Isabelle Huppert (in long-sleeved, crew-necked, floor-length white Armani Privé).
Look to your own closet.
I did. And I discovered that after over four decades of believing long skirts represented women’s antiliberation, acres of material that impeded progress, of choosing to get married in a short dress and wearing short dresses to the Met Gala (twice) and cheering whenever celebrities wore miniskirts to awards shows as a declaration of independence, I had acquired over the past six months not just one ankle-length skirt, but two dresses with handkerchief hems that likewise reach my feet. Also long sleeves and round necks.
“It’s a macrotrend,” said Ghizlan Guenez, founder of The Modist, a new fashion site. Which is to say, a trend that goes beyond fashion. But what exactly is it?
The end of the naked look. The beginning of a new age of female “pluri-empowerment” (as Iza Dezon, a trend forecaster, told CNN), as expressed through the kind of dress that prioritizes the individual and her needs over the clichés of female role play. Arguably it began, as these things do, at least two years ago — The New York Times began chronicling young women on the streets of Brooklyn layering clothes in creative ways that shielded or swaddled their bodies back in 2015. But it is only now reaching critical mass, thanks to a convergence of social, political and cultural factors as reflected in clothing.
And as far as those issues go: Women, fashion has you covered. In every sense of that word.
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Consider it this way: In 2014, Rihanna accepted the Fashion Icon Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in a sheer rhinestone-spangled scrim of a dress by Adam Selman; last November, she accepted the Shoe of the Year award at the Footwear News Achievement Awards in a long black Vetements X Juicy Couture velvet skirt, a long-sleeved shirt draped at the waist and long gloves, with almost no skin showing at all. In 2015, Beyoncé channeled Venus on the half shell in sheer Givenchy at the Met Gala, with only bits of strategically placed floral embroidery to keep her from arrest; this year, the Met Gala celebrates a designer — Rei Kawakubo — whose last show encased the female body in oversize armless carapaces that swallowed the Betty Boop and Botero silhouettes whole.
“We live in an age of reality TV and transparency, where everything is out there,” said Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the innovation group at J. Walter Thompson.
Technology has made us comfortable with sharing everything, from late-night parties to relationship status; with tweeting thoughts in the middle of the night (if you are President Trump) or snaps of yourself in your lingerie (if you are Kim Kardashian); with the idea of dating on television for all to see. Ms. Greene said the move to dress in the opposite direction was in some ways “a reaction to that — almost the anti-Kardashianization.”
It is a sign of the times, though one with a touch of irony, that for Melania Trump’s official portrait, the first lady chose a black tuxedo jacket complete with black tie at the neck, a formal, almost military, and very covered-up look — as was the Ralph Lauren dress-and-bolero she chose for the inauguration, with its high neck and matching gloves.
“Images of women being intensely beautified, sexualized and shown like dolls over many years has had an impact on me, as I believe it has on us all,” Phoebe Philo, the creative director of Céline, wrote in an email. As an alternative, Ms. Philo has focused her work at Céline on designing clothes — often oversize, soft, enveloping — that act almost as a chrysalis from within which the woman can emerge.
This is one kind of aesthetic reaction, but not the only one. It is not only about hemlines, for example, at least not in the vein of Newtonian fashion physics (everything that goes up must come down). It’s not about power dressing in the old, battering-ram-shoulder sense, but in the sense that when you feel secure and comfortable and protected, you feel stronger. It is reflected in both the hip historiana of Giambattista Valli’s floral silk chiffons with their long sleeves, sweeping skirts and chaste necks, and the head-to-toe character-actor dressing at Gucci. In the boho Puritan lines of Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino and the slouchy tailoring of Stella McCartney, the elegant rock-star suiting of Haider Ackermann and the wind-swept Victorian romance of Erdem. Also the swaddling chic of Michael Kors.
“When people are seated at fashion shows wearing pasties, the only thing that could be shocking is a tailored suit,” Mr. Kors said, referring to the surprise appearance last month of Nicki Minaj at 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday at the side of Haider Ackermann’s runway, her left breast almost entirely exposed. Also the fact that the whole look was still somehow much less seductively relevant than Alek Wek in a perfectly cut black cashmere tuxedo coat, skinny black trousers and black polo neck sashaying her way down the catwalk in front.
Perhaps because, as Ms. Greene said, one of the hallmarks of these clothes is that to a certain extent they “reject the strictures of the male gaze.”
“They are not about what men want anymore,” she continued, “but about what women want.”
As women have found their voice politically, they have begun to express themselves sartorially, be it through white pantsuits, so-called pussy hats or the modest fashion movement. Clothes are an integral part of the debate over the freedom to make your own choices — whether about what you do with your body or who touches your body or what you put on your body — that began with the rise of gender-neutral dressing, picked up steam thanks to both the leaked tape of Mr. Trump talking about grabbing women and the debate over the hijab, and became even more visible during the Women’s March on Washington in January.
Indeed, though The Modist, the name of Ms. Guenez’s website, is a clear nod to “modest,” it also denotes a “modiste,” a fashionable milliner or dressmaker. The conflation of references is less about wordplay than a reflection of our current reality, and the fact that these choices are not limited to a particular religious or ethnic group. After all, designers sold on the site include Maria Cornejo, Alberta Ferretti and Christopher Kane. Ms. Guenez herself, who was brought up in Algeria and educated at the London School of Economics, and who worked in private equity for 13 years before starting The Modist, did not begin dressing in a covered-up fashion until three years ago.
“It’s just a style preference for me,” she said. “I think it’s elegant.”
“Elegant” is a word that comes up a lot in association with the move to the more covered. “Sophisticated” and “practical,” too.
“I am convinced,” Mr. Kors said, “that there is something far more alluring about women wearing things that give them confidence, that don’t make them feel as if they have to tug at their hemlines or yank at their straps.”
For Karla Welch, the stylist behind Ms. Negga’s awards season wardrobe, being covered up was “an answer to how men are dressed.” She said it was also rooted in a belief that there was no reason for her clients to be confined to the old boxes of strapless and plunging mermaid gowns.
“I personally was so done with that type of dressing,” Ms. Welch said. “Even though Hillary Clinton lost the election, and we felt this unbelievable disappointment, I think there has been this awakening of women to all their different choices.” As a result, she said, when it came to her clients Ms. Negga and Sarah Paulson, another actress widely applauded for a style that was less revealing than regal, “we were looking at clothes that were about expressing themselves, feeling comfortable as themselves — Ruth loved a sleeve — while at the same time shielding them in a way.”
“We’re political people,” she continued. “Clothes are a form of armor.”
And that is partly why Ms. Distenfeld believes this is not simply a seasonal trend, but a shift in the definition of image and of identity. “If you are speaking a new language and hearing a new language, you need to wear a new clothing language to express that,” she said.