While the cocoon silhouette may be one of the biggest trends of the season, it’s dividing opinion among women across the Gulf.
The ideal waist-to-hip ratio is perhaps a calculus of elusiveness and an everchanging formula. Throughout history, couturiers tried not only to capture this feminine mystique, but to also extend it through hourglass silhouettes that dominated women’s fashion intermittently for centuries. This was manifest in the 20th century, for example, in Christian Dior’s hallmark New Look (1947), Georgina Godley’s Lumps and Bumps collection (1968), and Rei Kawakubo’s Spring collection Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body (1997).
Yet decades before, in the years before the first world war, new silhouettes began to emerge, reconfiguring the female body in more abstract ways and birthing a whole new creative fashion lexicon expressed through volume and novel proportions. The Parisian master couturier Paul Poiret was known to cut light cloth into bat wings and a hobble skirt, creating a cocoon of fabric around the body. This recoding of the formula was perhaps best expressed in Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga’s Japanese-inspired pieces, with their cocoon-like shapes shifting the focus from the waist to the shoulders, resulting in flowing silhouettes that wrap the body rather than bind it. Protrusions and protuberances distorted the shape of the human form and gave way to new ideals of beauty. Yves Saint Laurent designed a bridal dress in 1965 inspired by Russian matryoshka dolls. It saw the cocoon come up and over the head, enveloping the woman in white knit; akin to a subzero, couture sleeping bag.
Today, women have continued to emancipate themselves from the yoke of a cinched waistline – but the question remains: is there a place for unconventional bodies in luxury fashion? Saudi model Ghalia Amin started out as a stylist with a booming presence on network television. However, without fail, producers kept urging her to lose weight, insisting that fashion is not for bigger women. Amin, overwhelmed by the requests, was motivated to prove them wrong. “Women’s bodies in the Middle East are so different from those we see on the runway, even a thin woman’s body fat in this region is distributed differently,” she shares. “I wear everything. I don’t limit myself to any cut or design as long as it looks nice on me – even if it hugs my body or hides my curves.”
“The cocoon silhouette can be styled in so many ways,” voices Lebanese designer Dima Ayad, who might have found the alchemic dress silhouette that complements all body types. “If you are apple-shaped, the barrel line conceals that. If you have a curvy, hourglass figure, you can throw a belt on and it will elevate the look so much.” Her eponymous curve-friendly fashion label positions as its signature dress the pleated metallic kaftan; soft tulle made with plissé Lurex mesh draping from the neck. With her line offering vast size ranges, Ayad says, “We design big and then go small, not the other way around.” The inclusive designer invites a dialogue between the fabric and the body, letting the textiles shapeshift according to the versatile shapes they dress.
Begging to differ with Ayad is Saudi stylist Sausan AlKadi, whose lively online presence and collaboration with big brands have garnered her a large following. “The cocoon dress is perhaps the most difficult to style in the Arab world, especially for curvy women. It is, by all accounts, the least flattering shape,” she says emphatically. From her experience, she has styled two predominant body shapes: hourglass and pearshaped.
“A tiny waist and bigger hips are a Middle Eastern woman’s best asset. The cocoon shape really robs her of that. It’s probably best on model-like figures, not the everyday woman,” she says. Even though to Alkadi, hips don’t lie, she has had to circumvent this area for her clients using solutions that don’t involve flowing material; rather a minimalism that avoids detail around the thighs.
But where Alkadi sees a problem, Reema Al Banna, the designer behind the award-winning Dubai-based label Reemami, sees opportunity. “It’s true that the cocoon is difficult to pull off but a lot of GCC women love to wear loose-fitting, flowy garments. They can be both comfortable and fashionable,” she contests. The graduate from Ésmod Paris describes her work as a “printed playground,” sites for exploration of patterns and architectonic forms, borrowed from her past life as a graphic designer in an advertising agency some 10 years ago. “Loose doesn’t mean boring – it can be done in a flirty way. I use frills and buttons and play with asymmetry.” FW20 collections, from Richard Quinn to Off -White, have explored this shape, with the former bringing floral textiles and shapes reminding of actual blooms and the latter offering a more subtle cocoon as a textured, color-block coat. Spring suggests the trend won’t die down soon, with Junya Watanabe and Simone Rocha offering kaftans dripping in sequins and tailored cocoon shapes with embellished collars and pockets. If the cut suggests wrapping oneself in bedsheets, designers are coating the fabric in a Parisian night out.
Whether these designs are vestiges of oppressive Victorian corsets or represent a sea of fabrics that appear unbecoming on certain body types, one thing is clear: fashion is one of many arenas in which a changing attitude towards the female body is gaining momentum. Regional brands are flouting what emblems the feminine ideal, opting for voluminous, abstracting and androgynous structures that obscure the binary of gendered bodies and are paving a path for a fresh new look.
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Originally published in the January 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia