When best actress nominee Cynthia Erivo stepped out for the virtual golden Globe awards in February wearing a luminous neon Valentino SS21 Haute Couture gown, towering silver platforms, and white leather gloves, she made it clear: while red carpet season might have changed, post-pandemic glamor had arrived. Pierpaolo Piccioli delivered another showstopper in April at the Oscars for best actress nominee Carey Mulligan, whose golden couture gown, embroidered with thousands of sequins, took 350 hours to create and further heralded the triumphant return of wide-skirted, OTT glitz.
After more than a year of WFH leggings, Zoom tops, and face masks, there has been a renewed appetite for joyful, optimistic, and event dresses that evoke a sense of occasion, says Libby Page, senior market editor at Net-A-Porter. “Bestselling brands include Zimmermann, Chloé, Valentino, and Alex Perry, all of whom showcased vibrant gowns and prints that are meant for a sense of occasion,” she adds. “We believe it is a result of the incredible optimism among our customers as they fall back in love with the joys of dressing up.” Buoyed by the global vaccine rollout and countries slowly opening up again to travel and socializing, audacious dressing is back in rotation.
A return to glamour after times of despair is nothing new – culture always responds to trauma, with fashion usually leading the way. The horrors of the first world war and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic – collectively killing an almost unfathomable 70 million people – was followed by the Roaring Twenties, as if so much sadness could only be washed away with fringed flapper dresses, a daring bob hairstyle, and jazz. Everything came crashing down in 1929, followed by the Great Depression – which Hollywood answered with fur, diamonds, and sultry starlets like Vivien Leigh and Jean Harlow. In 1947, Christian Dior bid adieu to the austere fabrics and designs that characterized the 1930s and 1940s with his lush New Look, its acres of fabric signifying an end to rations and restraint.
The 2000s, however, have seen glamor slowly slip away in favor of street style and athleisure, reaching a fleece-lined nadir during the 2020 lockdowns. forget putting on a ballgown – the entire planet was barely putting on deodorant anymore. What even was the point? But fashion is about the future, even when it references the past. And the point is this: life, and hope, and beauty will always return. Those tracksuit bottoms might be cashmere but they can never compete with the sheer fantastical thrill of being enveloped in an unreasonable amount of tulle, silk, or taffeta. Where would Cinderella be without her gown? Still scrubbing the hearth, probably. Gowns are transformative and restorative – and our post-vaccine future is nothing if not full-on dazzling, with ballgowns taking center stage.
For her recent ninth wedding anniversary celebrations, Lebanese fashion entrepreneur Karen Wazen Bakhazi stepped out in a neon yellow jacquard Dior gown, the classic silhouette punched up with a vivacious 2021 hue. “I wanted to wear something special to mark the occasion, with a feminine, princess-inspired mood,” she says. “I miss dressing up, and this was such a nice opportunity to wear a dress like this again! I love wearing gowns, they’re always my favourite thing to wear to mark special moments.” Designers both regionally and internationally have also started stepping away from passionless practicality to show revived ballgowns, including Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Schiaparelli, and Dior. Zuhair Murad and Elie Saab, too, have returned with live couture shows featuring fantastical creations. For his SS21 collection, Lebanese couturier Rami Kadi included a show-stopping pearled ivory ballgown embroidered with crystals and ostrich feathers, as well as a jacquard gown with Disney fairies whimsically embellished across the asymmetrical skirt. “I want women to feel the best of themselves, as if this is their favorite version: strong, confident, feminine, and fierce,” Kadi notes. “After the pandemic, we are seeing a return to authenticity. Owning a couture piece is like owning a master painting; a piece that you will forever sustain and cherish and that your children and grandchildren can inherit.”
For those of us not willing to go full Met Gala at brunch and completely forgo the ease of wear we’ve become accustomed to this past year, the ballgowns of this new era masterfully blend glamour and comfort. At Carolina Herrera, Wes Gordon showed dresses in cotton, without boned bustiers, while Wazen chose her Dior frock partly because “it was cut to a midi length, so not only did it feel special, but it was ultra comfortable to wear.” This season’s gowns are not just for weddings and the red carpet; they are made for movement, with the full skirts also handily providing a built-in social-distancing mechanism. “Overall, designers have demonstrated a positive outlook for the season as they move towards more sophisticated fabrics and standout details in their collections,” reflects Page about Net-A-Porter’s occasion wear. “One of our bestselling gowns continues to be the exclusive Oscar de la Renta strapless metallic brocade gown retailing for £10 845 (about AED 48 600) – we sold multiple units in just one day earlier this year. In terms of occasion footwear, Amina Muaddi is the queen.”
Times have been bleak – but take a peak underneath and you’ll see a slip of gown waiting to be unleashed. We want to dress up and celebrate, not continue as if nothing happened. We want to bask in the gloriousness of life; take urgent pleasure in the moment; go from effortless to effort-full. And what could be a better dress to do that in than a ballgown?
Originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia