Fashion Is Selling Girlhood. Are You Buying It?

Fashion

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collage of models in dresses

Sonny Vandevelde, Ben Broomfield, Launchmetrics, Jacob Lillis, Shutterstock, Courtesy of Simone Rocha and Sandy Liang//Getty Images

Girlbosses, girl math, girl internet, girl dinners, hot girl walks, It Girl lists. Take a quick spin around the internet or a trip to New York’s Lower East Side, and it’s impossible not to notice: Girlhood is having a moment, and everyone is talking about it. And if they’re not already dressing accordingly, they soon will be.

For spring 2024, Carolina Herrera, Nina Ricci, and Simone Rocha all debuted ultrafeminine looks marked by oversize bows. Tory Burch gave us a powder-pink hoop dress, while Maison Margiela and Altuzarra showed abundant ruffles. Corseted gowns from Christian Siriano and Alberta Ferretti trailed ribbons. Suffice it to say, the sweet aesthetic will reign supreme this spring; Net-a-Porter reported a 125 percent increase in searches for pastel dresses following Fashion Month.

This kind of girlish style isn’t exactly new; we’ve seen it before, on the mid-’90s runways of Anna Sui and Betsey Johnson. Then as now, it’s a trend often considered provocative, if for no other reason than women presenting as girls shines a light on a fetishization of youth inextricable from a fetishization of women’s disempowerment.

But maybe shining that light is the point. “I wanted to recontextualize pieces that have historically restricted women’s bodies, like crinolines, to create new silhouettes that instill a sense of freedom,” says Burch of her hoop dress creations.

Designer Sandy Liang remembers the dresses she wore to her early piano recitals. “I don’t know if this is subversive, but I wish I had them now,” she says. Her collections of pinafores, school uniforms, Peter Pan collars, puff sleeves, and bows epitomize the haute-girl aesthetic. “So many women would look at [my recital dresses] and be like, ‘That’s not flattering; that’s not showing off my boobs or my waist.’” But for Liang, they’ve become a major inspiration.

I’m a 32-year-old who spends most of my money on eBay buying the toys that I didn’t have when I was little.”

Selling girlhood to women who’ve ostensibly left it behind has long been a tenet of capitalism. But what if the woman in question understands girlhood not as a commodity, but as an essential component of who she’ll always be? Speaking of her own youth and the playfulness she sees as its defining feature, Liang says, “My whole life, I’ve been trying to protect that energy and share it.”

“I encourage us all to think about how we create meaning in certain objects, and the fluidity of those meanings,” says YouTuber and podcaster Mina Le, who specializes in fashion history. “You can perceive that a woman wearing bloomers is infantilizing herself. But have you talked to this woman?” Many comments on Le’s video titled Why Is Everyone Dressing Like a Little Girl? echo this sentiment. User @kawaiinekochick2 writes, “I think…women create these styles because they don’t necessarily view this hyperfeminine aesthetic as inherently sexual or childish. That’s a view created by men. When I dress in a girly way, I feel like a feminine adult woman.”

simone rocha pearl handbag

courtesy of simone rocha

Simone Rocha Handbag

Up against objectification, the gender pay gap, and the myriad disappointments and burdens of a post–Roe v. Wade, post–#MeToo America—not to mention the endless stream of prescriptions about “age-appropriate outfits” and “how to dress to attract a man” on social media—why shouldn’t women turn to fashion for respite, reclamation, escape?

“I’m obsessed with the idea of being disconnected from the world as it is now,” Liang says of the inspirations she drew from to create her spring 2024 collection, which featured diaphanous ballet tops, jewel-toned bows, satin flowers, and tiers of lacy frills on models in flip-flops that call to mind girlhood sprinkler dances through hot summer afternoons. Her moodboard was full of girls and women in matching outfits, huddled together. Including one of Hanna Hall as Cecilia Lisbon, one of the five doomed suburban sisters in noted It Girl Sofia Coppola’s 1999 adaptation of The Virgin Suicides.

The pull of nostalgia is part of Liang’s inclination toward girlhood—and the biggest influence on her work. “I’m a 32-year-old who spends most of my money on eBay buying the toys that I didn’t have when I was little,” she says. “Those are the things that I treasure so hard.”

Aesthetica

Aesthetica

Aesthetica

Credit: Bookshop.org

This article appears in the February 2024 issue of ELLE.

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Headshot of Allie Rowbottom

Allie Rowbottom is the author of the novel Aesthetica and the memoir Jell-O Girls. She holds a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston and lives in Los Angeles.

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