Once upon a time in the late 90s and early 00s, fashion was all about fantasy. At a time when the front runner of romantic fashion John Galliano was at Dior giving us a theatrical take on femininity, over the top gowns and hats that could only exist on a runway or a period piece, fashion was a frivolous fever dream. Even old runways by Vivienne Westwood or Alexander McQueen carried themselves with an extravagance that still hasn’t been recreated to that echelon in present day times.
Fast forward to now and fashion seems to have traded its ruffled gowns for track suits, utility jackets and practical trousers to get you on the go. By the time the 2010s rolled around it was time for fashion’s fantasy era to take a break, with streetwear and utility-focused brands like Arc’teryx, Fear Of God Essentials and Supreme taking the spotlight.
If we take a look at Dior now under the helm of Kim Jones, it has become very functional on the menswear side, with collections presenting a more casual take on high fashion, and even Maria Grazia Chiuri is also keeping it toned-down on the womenswear side. Despite its insanely high prices and luxury standpoint, there is a wearable, digestible and everyday quality to most fashion shows you’ll see held by most top dog fashion brands (spoiler alert: it’s because that’s more sellable).
The lack of femininity could be attributed to several things. First of all, the concept of gender has evolved past the notions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, and not just in fashion. While fashion started to adopt an androgynous mentality, with many houses moving to co-ed runways rather than separating them as menswear and womenswear, the late 2010s gave us the Me Too movement, what some would call a modern wave of feminism that encouraged women to break free from the preconceived notions ascribed to us by the patriarchy.
It wasn’t just in fashion that the word ‘femininity’ was losing its ground. In all aspects of life, women seemed to be moving away from that end-of-the-spectrum label that, for the most part, has historically been assigned to them by their male counterparts. Femininity had become a shackled space to break free from.
Another reason can be attributed to the lack of women leading the big fashion houses. Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Balenciaga, Burberry for the larger part of their existence have had a male creative directors. By 2018, Phoebe Philo left CELINE, and while Philo’s take on fashion was rooted in dressing the modern, working and familial woman, not necessarily hitting the romantic aspect of fashion, a woman at the head of the big fashion companies was becoming even more of a rarity. We’re not saying only women can design for women, but that female perspective which is intrinsically more understanding of what real women want, how they desire to look and feel, was missing.
That’s not to deny the work of insanely talented smaller designers, who each have such a unique perspective, but in the general, top house landscape, there was a clear lack of an ultra-feminine take. At least, that was until Sandy Liang arrived on the scene.
Launched in 2014, the NYC-based fashion label has been revolutionizing feminine wear, though the designer makes it a point that you don’t have to be a girl to wear her designs, as long as you enjoy them, they can be yours. In her runways, you’ll be able to find floral motifs in one shape or another that could have been made out of your grandmother’s old curtains, baby doll dresses that could have made their way onto the set of The Virgin Suicides, draping and cut-outs that exude a feminine vulnerability, knee-high stockings, knitted bonnets, and of course, bows.
Will my girlfriend ever come back from war (the sandy liang sample sale)— Kevin Lozano (@krevinlorenzo) January 13, 2023
Over the past few years, Sandy Liang has given the Downtown New York girlies a brand new wardrobe and it’s become a massive hit, with Bella Hadid known to sport her designs. On TikTok, fashion theorist and writer Rian (AKA @thatadult) explains that Sandy Liang is “filling in the vulnerability gap” in fashion. She goes on to say that the brand doesn’t run from the “purity of girlyness”, embracing the nostalgic codes like those embellished roses we had on our childhood tank top and short pyjamas.
evaluating the aesthetic context of the work of sandy liang brand♬ original sound – rian
With Sandy Liang, there is a simplicity and an unapologetic take on what it means to be a girl, or rather girly, without the need to justify itself. In essence, Sandy Liang has become the epitome of girlhood. It’s a certain kind of romantic feeling that transcends throughout Liang’s clothing. There is no subject except the wearer, no one to project that romanticism onto except themselves. It is being romantic for the sake of it rather than romantic with a purpose.
That’s not to say femininity, girly and romantic fashion can’t be functional too. While Galliano’s Dior designs were at times hard to imagine in a woman’s day-to-day life, Sandy Liang knows how to navigate the bridge between the two. Its collaboration with Salomon is a perfect example on how to merge the two, adding a soften colour palette and a playful look to the XT-6 Expanse model.
While Sandy Liang may be the leader of this post-romantic fashion movement, other key players have added to the phenomenon. Cecilie Bahnsen comes straight to mind, especially with her Asics collaboration. For SS23, the Scandinavian designer brought in her soft aesthetics on the movement and practicality-first brand by debuting her collaborative GT-2160 sneakers, embroidered and embossed with floral motifs. The blend of the two was more than fruitful considering the two linked up once again earlier this year to work on the Gel-NYC model that now sells for upwards of £500 on Stock X.
Dilara Findikoglu is another designer whose feminist take on fashion has been re-igniting the romantic discourse in fashion, though in a more subversive, risqué way, especially with her FW23 collection titled “Not a Man’s Territory”. We saw corseted dresses, revealing tulle and a floral lace two-piece worn by a model whose hands were restricted with a silky ribbon. With every collection, Findikoglu has been reclaiming the idea of feminine wear void of the male perspective.
The place where all trends are spotlighted and pushed to the right audience, TikTok, has also been pushing for the revival of romanticism in fashion, with trends and aesthetics like balletcore or blokettecore, a literal feminised version of the ultra-masculine blokecore, giving us the girlie content we’ve been missing. Even the trends like “girl dinner” or “hot girl summer” have given birth to a reclaiming of the early 2010s “just girly things” internet template in a less exclusionary way.
What can now be described as the post-romantic wave of fashion could be ascribed the push away from ultra-functionality, but in reality this movement isn’t a result of an aesthetic war. It’s embracing a perspective which has been missing from fashion but has been so deeply needed. Because with every aesthetic in fashion, there is a designer ready to represent and embody it and a niche fan-base ready to indulge in it.
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