If innocence could be a fashion statement, what would it be? A ruffle. Some tulle, a bow. Innocence is a colour—pale—and touchingly decorative…but not too much. So, what happens if there is not just one or two tasteful frills but tiers and tiers of them? And a torrent of tulle and overbearing corsages? Marc Jacobs understands innocence and romance to the very bottom of his heart, but he has pricked them with an incurable virus of excess. His corsages are Alice in Wonderland-size; his dresses foam with sparkly, densely packed tulle ruffles. All is blown up to 11 on the dial. Viktor & Rolf often do the same just for fun. So do Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe.
This and next season’s Rodarte and Bora Aksu hoe the same fertile ornamental ground, and the agricultural metaphor is no accident. Seeing Rodarte’s dresses instantly made art historian Camille Serchuk think of French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau, known for his idyllic scenes, and, even more so, Marie Antoinette in her milkmaid phase. “She was trying to get away from the rigidity and pomp and hierarchy of the palace,” says Serchuk, who’s based in New Haven, Conn. “This was partly because the rules of the monarchy in which she grew up in Vienna were much looser and the royal family could have a real life, and that was forbidden at Versailles. So these very soft forms in this collection look very much like that embracing of extravagance. It’s so abundant—the sheer volume is a way of asserting privilege and status.”
It takes a historian’s eye to see the bucolic beauty in Rodarte’s frills and bonnets, but once spied, the perverse interlacing of the pastoral and the pampered begins to unravel and the thread unspools toward sedition. Before heads began rolling in the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette and her ilk hung out in their white-marble pleasure dairies—faux farms for the rich and famous of yore. There, dressed up like luxury Bo-Peeps, they gardened, churned butter and made cheese. Pleasure dairies were a return to nature, one dotted with picturesque cows and a woolly lamb or two, unsullied by weeds and manure. And while belle époque ladies played at being peasants, the real ones were picking up their pitchforks. We know where that led, and this may be where we are now.
Rodarte is not the only one to lead us up the garden path. Bora Aksu, too, spins a tale of haute rusticity. But instead of Marie Antoinette, the London-based designer’s princess is the poet Papusza. “Papusza learned to read by trading chickens in exchange for lessons with local villagers…. Her poems have intense emotion without being too heavy; there is this innocence, naïveté, her longing to settle despite being in a nomadic community,” writes Aksu. “I do love the contrasts, and the spring/summer 2019 collection is actually a patchwork of episodes from Papusza’s life. Nature was always part of her and her poems, so I designed dresses that almost come from nature; the prints and intricate embroidery are a reflection of her sensitivity and complex character.” Aksu’s sugary, iridescent ruffles are the very stuff of barnyard glamour.
Fashion is milking our rural rococo moment, but it’s not the only one. In 2014, London superstar art gallery Hauser & Wirth opened in a farm of its own, called Durslade, in Somerset, England. One’s approach through landscaped meadows is heralded by a monumental stainless-steel milk pail by Subodh Gupta. There is contemporary art in the old threshing barn and a sculpture in the pigsty. Well-groomed livestock roam the fields, and multi-starred cuisine is served in the erstwhile cowshed.
Durslade was bought by the Berkeley family of London’s Mayfair about the time Marie Antoinette and her friends were romping in the haystacks. The Berkeleys turned what had been a cheese dairy for the past thousand years into a chic, neo-Gothic hobby farm. Filled with Hauser & Wirth’s stratospherically priced artworks, Durslade is now twice-removed from its former farming self. It is a pleasure dairy of the 21st century—an Eden—and Photoshopped to approximate a nature long ago that, like interminably ruffled dresses, like a crowd of daffodils, we think of as unspoiled and forever innocent
This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of ELLE Canada.