This season in fashion, size matters – but not in the way you might think. With temperatures set to reach the 20s in the UK next week, there’s a new larger-than-life dress shape billowing across the horizon aiming to capitalise on the warm weather.
The cut is non-specific, but the tent dress – as it is loosely known – is united by three things: size (very wide), shapelessness (there is no waist), and fabric (natural, such as linen, cotton or calico). Proof can be found on the summer catwalks at Valentino and Molly Goddard, on the high street at Zara and H&M, and even on the red carpet: last week’s Met Gala was a case in point, with Lady Gaga and Gwyneth Paltrow ditching the usual flesh flashing for silhouettes of truly impressive girth.
For some, the tent dress is a salvo against the tight corset body-con style favoured by the Kardashians, Instagram and fast fashion. In short, a female-focused form of summer dressing, or at least that’s the hope.
“You could argue this is a different form of power dressing,” says Susanna Cordner, a senior research fellow at the London College of Fashion, who is interested in “fashions that let women take up space in public” – AKA womanspreading. “Clothes aren’t just about fit but also feeling: how it feels to wear them and move in them and how the world around you will relate to you,” she says.
In 2013 the New York Times called this style the “sheltering dress”; Ditte Reffstrup, the creative director of the Danish brand Ganni, who brought the shape to the high street, describes it as “a loud silhouette”; and the internet has spawned the term “baggy con” for the look.
Still, not everyone is convinced that loose dresses are a move away from dictatorial beauty standards. Elizabeth Kutesko, a lecturer in cultural studies, finds this reframing “simplistic, or unconvincing at least”.
“It’s capaciousness is probably less an interesting and conceptual play on the space between the body and fabric, more a comfortable and breezy choice in warmer climes,” she says.
Kutesko points instead to Dior’s Trapeze line of 1958 – “a fluid liberation of the body from the cinched waist popular at the time” – and the designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto who designed clothes in the 1980s that “didn’t fit clothing to the body, but rewrote the body through fashion, calling for a new perception of beauty that many women really did find empowering”.
For Kutesko, the freedom to play with body shape via clothing rather than by hiding it was the key, although she does concede: “It’s hard to generalise because the history of western European fashion is so closely tied to accentuating the female form.”
Still, it marks an interesting point in the dichotomy of contemporary fashion and “attractiveness”. That’s certainly the aim of the designers behind the dresses. “They are inherently freeing to wear,” says Rejina Pyo, whose signature wide, doll-dress-like dresses have taken on new meaning in a world where bodycon can be perceived as fashion designed for the male gaze. Reffstrup agrees: “I don’t think that showing skin is necessary in order to be sexy. There’s something really charming about not revealing everything,” she says.
Summer aside, the least controversial reason for the ascent of this shape could be the casualisation of fashion. “Dresses aren’t just for dressing up,” says Reffstrup who thinks that loose-fitting dresses worn in the heat come from the same lineage as fleeces and trainers. For once, it seems, practicality can be co-opted by fashion.