Monday, August 21, 2006

Brace yourself for a journey into pinafores

On Thursday I was wandering about in the city looking at the cheap Asian import shops -- a pleasure in which I often indulge in the name of "research" into "trend diffusion". I use the scare quotes because, while I'm professionally interested in the semiotic metamorphosis of style motifs as they spread through different market segments, I don't follow couture trends closely enough to chase them as they 'trickle down' to my price bracket.

Rather, my fashion research (and this blog) is about how ordinary people negotiate clothing choices that make them feel individual and creative within a retail market that is already crammed with mass-produced, mass-mediated, always-already knocked-off clothing. So when I do "research" in extremely low-market stores like Apple Spice, Femme Connection, Modiste or Studio Girl (Cheapest Price in Town!), I'm not joining the mental dots between the merchandise on display and a 'look' I've previously seen in a magazine, on a celebrity or at a recent Fashion Week. Instead, my eye is drawn to things that stand out precisely because I haven't seen them before.

This is a bizarre strategy, really, as this market segment moves so fast that it won't be long before any given look reaches a tipping point and suddenly it's everywhere. About a month ago I spotted a $20 t-shirt printed with rabbit silhouettes, but while I was still deciding whether to buy it, it tipped. First I saw it on an artist who wore a black version with white rabbits to her exhibition opening. Then it was a uni student wearing the pink one with black rabbits. And then it was all on -- the t-shirts multiplied as quickly the very bunnies printed on them, and I seem to see them in every second cheap shop.

But for now, I want to focus on the pinafore dress. I'm feeling quite buoyant about my trendspotting abilities right now, because not only has Jaunty Pussy become the dominant look this year (2006: International Year of the Spot and Stripe!), but my 2006 Fashion Prediction of "Back to School" is also ringing true, big time. (Please allow me my moment of glory; remember I also predicted a vogue for Elvis-style capes back in 2004, so I'm not used to actually being right.)

One manifestation of the Back to School trend appears to be braces. Alex Singh from Sydney label Extra Tasty cites Bobby's Cuts as a retail innovation -- and its appropriation of the food logic of 'freshness' fits well with the examples I've raised before. But I think I've previously hinted at the store's aesthetic role: Bobby's Cutsis totally championing the boyish use of elastic straps to hold one's pants up, along with the other school uniform-ish looks of tucked-in shirt and tie with cardigan. I would love to know the reasoning behind this, because it seems so consistent. On Friday night I asked store owner Thom why he tucked his tie into his shirt. He was shitfaced at the time and hugged me by way of reply.

The pinafore dress is the chicks' version of the same look. On Thursday, as I browsed in Studio Girl, my eye, ever alert for sartorial distinction, alighted on a pinafore dress that was pretty much a high-waisted bubble skirt, made from a light, puffy floral-printed cotton, with matching detachable braces. It was so badly made that a button holding on one of the braces popped off while I was trying on the dress. I thought, "Well, I'll have to buy it now," which more than anything else was an excuse to talk myself into my purchase. The salesgirl sewed the button back on at the register, which made me realise that she must do this to quite a few shoddy garments. Then two more of the buttons popped off that evening as I tried on the dress at home, so I sewed them all back on.

I wore this dress to Friday night's Is Not Magazine party. In a nice piece of inadvertent synergy, myself and my fellow editors were wearing preppy schoolkid outfits because as part of the event, we were performing a song from The Sound of Music. That's when I realised that the hipsters have embraced Back to School and that our 'costumes' were actually the height of fashion!

There are all sorts of bubble skirt pinafores around at the moment. Here's one I found on eBay.

The seller was billing it as 'vintage', but its unevenly gathered skirt and the grey and black diagonal stripe look very contemporary to me. That's the thing with the nouveau pinafore: it's a stylistically ambiguous garment. Whereas past pinafores had pedigrees -- the dungaree dress from workman's overalls; the tailored pinafore from school uniforms -- it's hard to know what to make of a soft, draped pinafore made from t-shirt fabric:

Or one that looks like a stretch miniskirt with an attached bib (this one's from Alice McCall's spring/summer 2006 collection):

The bib brings me to the issue that pinafores are hard for grown-arse women to wear. The braces have to go around the breasts, while the bib sits awkwardly on top of them. And while you'd imagine them being forgiving for the squidgy, they're not. About a month ago I spotted a grey pinafore dress at Supre with an empire (aka "babydoll") line and a very low-cut scoop neckline. I bought it on impulse, even though I thought the colour was quite dull, because I hadn't seen the style anywhere else and because I thought the cut would skim right over my roll of midriff fat.

Unfortunately it's turned out to be the kind of dress that makes my mother ask when the baby is due. Making you look fatter than you are seems to be a common problem here. Maybe it's the silhouette? FashionTribes has a problem with the bulky look of the Jaunty Pussy pinafores on Peter Som's Fall 2006 collection and the bubble shapes at Vera Wang, while another blogger worries that bubble skirts make you look like an egg.

The pinafore is reminiscent both of childhood and of the impossibility of returning to it. Its wearers look girlish -- but they also look like they're in costume as the little girls they used to be. And the fact that pinafores look good on so few people says a lot about the ultimate ephemerality of nostalgia. Perhaps that's why the most successful pinafores are the hybridised ones rather than the 'classics'. You can dress up in the past, but you must always return to the present.