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Molly Goddard SS16
Molly Goddard SS16Photography Chloé Le Drezen

Why fashion is finding strength in the frills of girlhood

Molly Goddard and Ed Marler make beautiful dresses, not political statements. But their fashion for girly girls speaks of the feminism of dressing to please no-one but yourself

“Why do you wear such baggy dresses?”; “Why don’t you show off your body more?”; or, a personal favourite, “Smock O’Clock!” – among the variety of comments directed at the clothes I wear, their tendency to be demure, paintbox-bright and somewhat childlike are themes that crop up the most. 

At Molly Goddard’s SS16 collection presentation on Friday afternoon, there was no need for women who dress like girls to defend themselves. Taking place at the ICA, the designer continued her tradition of placing her inclusive girl gang of ingénues in ingenious scenarios: after AW15’s life drawing class, this season saw the girls partake in the slightly more mundane task of making sandwiches. Wrapping tomato and lettuce sandwiches in cling film in a bright white factory setting, the environment was a clinical counterpoint to dresses that, in their ornate smocking, embroidery and frills, could veer into the sickly sweet – as Goddard said of the decision to swap rolling hills for plastic curtains, “We didn’t want to make it too twee, or pretty-pretty.”

But there’s a kind of power to “pretty-pretty”. Watching Goddard’s adolescent girls make enough sandwiches for a year’s worth of lunchboxes, the tableau was a sly wink at misogynist Unilads of the “Get in the Kitchen” variety. But in a show cast from real girls on the street and on Facebook, from a label grounded in a strong family dynamic – Molly is joined by stylist sister, Alice, and their Mum whose home incorporates the label’s studio – the trick might be to look at the collection without the cynical filter of adulthood. Besides, Goddard doesn’t subscribe to the cult of the easily Instagrammable, visual “reference”, instead preferring to take fabric and silhouette as her starting point. Her designs might evoke anything from Edwardian schoolrooms or The Virgin Suicides, but that’s on the viewer.

“Taken on her own terms, this is a new kind of girl: powerful because you cannot pin her down”

Taken on her own terms, this is a new kind of girl: powerful because you cannot pin her down. Speaking to Molly earlier this year about her AW15 collection, Goddard explained her love of girlish in-betweenness: “I think there’s something fascinating about that stage where you’re not totally in control. You’re not defined yet as a person, and that is what interests me.” Looking at the girls in Goddard’s SS16 collection (many of them cast from social media), you might be reminded of the feminist teens who, working out their style and self via sites like Tumblr, are spearheading a new way of “doing” girlhood. As one choice Rookie quote reads, “there is no inherent contradiction in reading books and in wearing blue glitter eyeshadow.”

At Ed Marler’s SS16 presentation, taking place in an old Soho courtyard not long after Goddard’s, a sense of the uncontrollable was amplified. Tripping deep into the dressing-up box, Marler’s girls and boys were more spice than sugar: wearing ornate, sky-high crowns and undone gowns in red, black and white, dresses combined brocade, gingham, leopard print and even tinsel with all the abandon of a child’s-eye gaze on “glamour.” It was a somewhat gothic vision that, beneath its theatrical layers, centred on the freedom that dressing up can offer. “It’s all about dressing,” explained Marler, pointing out the baby-gro style poppers that lined collars to transform dresses into cardigans, and vice versa. “The idea is that a boy who wants to wear a skimpy dress but is too scared to get on the tube can wear it as a little black cardigan to start with.”

Tapping the transformative power of dressing up, there was also a quieter message here – that not quite knowing what to wear could be as powerful as planning everything with precision. Molly Goddard’s girl club, pairing their dresses with clashing clogs and caught-in-the-rain hair, said something of the glitzy aspirations of adolescents that often result in indecision. What’s more, with their voluminous tulle smocks worn over cotton t-shirts and flat boots, they were among the most comfortable-looking cast of fashion month so far. For Goddard, her channelling of youth needs to be realistic in this way: “I want them to be things that people could see themselves wearing and things that people do actually wear.” 

“The traditional, A-to-B view of adolescence – in which one begins as a child and emerges a fully cohesive adult – is one irrelevant to a world increasingly saturated with visual references and instant identities to pick from”

Goddard, who cites Rei Kawakubo as among her inspirations, shares something of the designer’s spearheading of silhouettes that go against the fashion grain – and which are anything but “sexy.” To wear Comme des Garçons has always been to please the wearer, not the beholder. The haphazard, outsized silhouettes of early Commes was a riposte to fashion’s obsession with hugging the female form. Before he dropped off the womenswear map in 2011, the woman who might now turn to Goddard was brought up on Charles Anastase and his floaty, fairy-like femmes – all awkward limbs and high necks.

But why is it important that designers turn to the dressing up box now? Both Goddard and Marler say that political statements have no explicit place in their worlds of dream gowns and princess crowns. But they each make a statement on femininity nonetheless. For Marler, design should empower the wearer to transform, whenever and wherever they wish – his easily customisable gowns are a statement on fashion's role to enable gender fluidity. Meanwhile, standing out amid fashion's obsession with the rebellious stylings of youth, there’s a sense of relief to a presentation like Goddard’s. Depicting girlhood without the baggage of a consistent, commodified brand of “cool”, these are dreamy, off-kilter designs among which (and in which) one can exhale, and relax. 

The traditional, A-to-B view of adolescence – in which one begins as a child and emerges a fully cohesive adult – is one irrelevant to a world increasingly saturated with visual references and instant identities to pick from. The hangover of Spice Girls-era “Girl Power” is a version of feminism that places a premium on knowing exactly who you are, and exactly which message you are selling, at the expense of the real incoherence and unknowability of selfhood. You can think of Goddard’s sandwich-making girl gang as the polar opposite to the supers storming the catwalk for the finale of Versace AW91. Both present a kind of sisterhood. But the infallible confidence of the supers wasn’t exactly relatable. Creating a world that instead partakes in the shared physical and mental spaces of girlhood, Molly Goddard has created a feminist statement that is stronger for its quietness. We are always becoming, and never cohesive – so we might as well be comfortable.