Send in the clowns

Models present creations during the Ashley Williams catwalk show at London Fashion Week in London...
Models present creations during the Ashley Williams catwalk show at London Fashion Week in London. Photos: Reuters
Model Bella Hadid in a ruffled billowy creation by Max Mara in Milan.
Model Bella Hadid in a ruffled billowy creation by Max Mara in Milan.

From the imminent return of Killing Eve to London fashion week, big collars and billowy sleeves are in. Which is to say, clown chic, writes Priya Elan. 

In the first season of Killing Eve, Jodie Comer’s character, Villanelle, wore a baby-pink tulle dress by Molly Goddard.

It was a look that launched copycat tiered dresses and hundreds of memes, not to mention fancy dress outfits.

But as the "first look" pictures from Season 3 drop, it seems she has seized on another trend: clown chic.

The photos feature Comer dressed in full circus-ready regalia: tiny tartan top hat, suspenders, electric-blue ruff collar and big red nose. Visually surprising and witty, it was also the most "on trend" look she could have gone for.

The look is in, with every element of the clown look (big sleeves, neck ties and ruffs, print and colour mixing) being referenced in fashion.

At London Fashion Week, Emilia Wickstead and Victoria Beckham featured huge pointy collars and billowy sleeves.

In Milan, Gucci and Max Mara featured similarly wider silhouettes, while at the Brits the harlequin look was much in evidence.

Charli XCX was seen in a gothy Fendi tulle dress with peaked shoulders; Paloma Faith wore an oversize, floppy, pink bow hat from Miu Miu, and Harry Styles performed in custom-made Gucci — an intricately designed lace shirt, gloves and trouser set that was peak Pierrot.

In menswear, the clownish oversize silhouette has replaced the skinnier look (as defined by Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent in the ’00s) with designers such as Bottega Veneta’s Daniel Lee, Louis Vuitton’s Kim Jones and Demna Gvasalia (founder of Vetements and now at Balenciaga) adopting the look in their collections.

For newer labels such as Ganni (the Danish label beloved by Instagram influencers like Pernille Teisbaek and Pandora Sykes), Christopher John Rogers (worn by Lil Nas X and Lizzo) and New York label Batsheva, the exaggeration that the clown silhouette offers is inspiring.

"I like to play with anything that most people reject and to consider why they reject it," Batsheva Hay says.

"Clownishness is the epitome of what people reject in terms of appearance, so it interests me."

Indeed, the style, with associations of creepiness and danger (so apt for Villanelle), is a perfect sartorial reflection of our troubled, disjointed times.

"The clown is an image of cultural exhaustion," says Andrew McConnell Stott, author of several essays on the subject, including "Clowns on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown".

"It’s a holdover from the industrial age, whose lingering presence has come to represent the loss of innocence and fun curdling into terror."

Designer Ashley Williams drew on similar ideas in her London Fashion Week collection.

"The reference was childhood nostalgia and innocence ... naive fun transforming, with time, into adult behaviours of insecurities; the idea of putting on a mask to hide yourself and your true emotions."

Williams’ show featured a model with clown make-up wearing a knitted tank top decorated with a pentagram pattern and a belt that read "shut up".

It was a dissonant, unexpectedly jarring moment in an otherwise whimsical show.

"Clowns are multifaceted characters who seem to only show one side of themselves," Williams says.

"They behave in a comical way for the entertainment of others, while also having a pervasive and clandestine, flawed, dark side."

Wild and outrageous fashions like the clown look have always existed as a way for consumers to live vicariously, revelling in the outrageousness of something that skirts the line between "good" and "bad" taste.

"In ancient China, clowns were the only ones who could make fun of the emperor. In medieval Europe, it was the same," writer and stylist Amber Nicole Alston says.

"I think clowns have endured because there’s a part of us — designers included — that wants to poke fun at the things we can’t control."

— Guardian News and Media


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