The Bandage Dress and the ‘Voluptuous’ Woman
A director at the fashion brand Hervé Léger has served up yet another reminder of the hostility fashion houses can hold for the people who wear their creations.
If you have not, yourself, worn a bandage dress, you have probably seen a bandage dress—on a celebrity, on a reality TV character, on a model, in a magazine, in the wild. The clingy dress, most iconically associated with the designer Hervé Léger—composed of Spandex strips sewn together, strategically, to smooth and mold a woman’s body—represents, regardless of its color or cut or length, a marriage of secrets and openness. It shapes openly and unapologetically, undergarment and garment fused into one. In that, the bandage dress acknowledges the obvious: that women have not just “curves,” the geometric phenomenon, but flesh, the human one. The dress would look terrible on a mannequin; it can look wonderful, however, on an actual woman, warm and real and voluminous. Whether you like the bandage dress or not, as a style or as a cultural phenomenon, there’s something quite productive about that fact.
So it was frustrating when, over the weekend, Patrick Couderc, the U.K. managing director of Hervé Léger, was quoted condemning “voluptuous” women for wearing the label’s body-hugging creations. Women with “very prominent hips and a very flat chest,” Couderc said, should not wear the brand’s iconic dresses. (Nor, he added, should lesbians—who, he claimed, “would want to be rather butch and leisurely.”)
In other words: To wear a bandage dress, according to a man charged with marketing bandage dresses, you have to have curves, but not too many of them. You have to have flesh, but for heaven’s sake, not too much of it.
Bandage dresses first became popular in the early 1980s, when the “King of Cling” Azzedine Alaia introduced them, and ascended again in the mid-’80s, when Léger—the designer most often given credit for bringing them into the mainstream—launched a new line. They were brought back into style in 2007, when the BCBG Max Azria Group, which bought the Hervé Léger brand in 1998, reintroduced the iconic dresses in a series of new colors and patterns and shapes. The bandage dresses, and the body-con trend they brought about, have proven enduring, not just on runways and red carpets, but on the street. They are both a cause and a result of a cultural period that has made a point of emphasizing, rather than downplaying, women’s curves.
So the bandage dress is a story of high fashion distilled into everyday style—and, by extension, the story of fashion’s ability to flatten and spread itself across the culture. What happens on the runways of New York and Paris will, if a design has commercial and cultural appeal, manifest in magazines and movies and TV, quickly trickling down to the sales floors of Neiman Marcus and Macy’s and Zara and Forever 21. That flattening can take place with body-con dresses or with pretty much anything else in fashion. And it means that trends, if people respond to them, can be had across sizes. They can be had across price points. They can be worn by large people and small people and straight people and gay people—by anyone, basically, who decides to wear them.
Which also means: Their designs can’t be patented. The trends they inspire can’t be owned. Fashion creators can’t decide how, ultimately, their clothes will be adopted by the large collective of individuals who have such a fraught relationship with the high-end houses: “everyday people.”
Couderc’s comments are a reminder, though, of how often fashion creators resist all that, and of how much of the high-end stuff is still dictated by designers’ fascination with tall, skinny women. Most of which is, still—still!—designed for women who have very little flesh. (On Project Runway, a show that pays lip service to fashion’s democratization, the challenges that inspire the most complaints from the designer-contestants are not the ones that ask them to construct clothes out of corn husks/seat belts/pet-care products; they’re the ones that ask them to design clothes for “everyday women” and their inconvenient curves.) “Bodycon,” as a style, is short for “body conscious,” but Couderc seems to want to amend that to “body self-conscious.” His comments speak to an enduring, and frustrating, reality about the relationship between women and the clothes they put on every day: that fashion isn’t, at the top, meant for them. That designers can be not just forgetful of the women who ultimately buy their work, but resentful of them.