The time of the hourglass

With her circle skirt, cinched waist and cantilevered cleavage, this season's fashion heroine recalls the elegantly silhouetted woman of yesteryear, says Susannah Frankel. Models have rarely looked this curvy

"And God Created Woman" proclaimed the programme notes for Marc Jacobs's autumn/winter collection for Louis Vuitton, first shown in Paris half a year ago now.

With her nipped-in, corsetted waist, full skirt and, perhaps most significantly, comparatively ample embonpoint, the feminine ideal upheld was a voluptuous sight indeed. And Mr Jacobs was not the only designer to knock the procession of skinny-hipped, flat-chested teenagers who have ruled the runway for so long off their pedestal.

Miuccia Prada, too, embraced a rather more womanly silhouette than she has done, or "normal clothes", as she herself described her vision. There are those who might argue, however, that the exaggerated fullness of models' breasts – achieved by both anatomy-enhancing seaming and rows of sweet, woolly ruffles at the décolletage – was rather more hourglass than nature ever intended or indeed normality strictly entailed.

Then, of course, there is Dolce & Gabbana to consider. The Italian mega-brand has brought back its signature corsetry in all its glory for the past year: the padding and underpinning of almost every look ensures that this particular heroine is more Fifties Italian starlet than waif in flavour.

Such a turnaround, of course, called for equally unprecedented casting. Mr Jacobs closed his show with Elle (The Body) Macpherson, whose relative age and considerable physical attributes make her far from a stalwart of the international catwalk where, for the most part, any disruption of line is seen as an unnecessary impediment.

Over at Prada, meanwhile, Catherine McNeil, Lara Stone, and Miranda Kerr (Mrs Orlando Bloom), walked the walk and, in their case also, such curvaceousness was surprising.

Whichever way one chooses to look at it, column inches declaring that a less-than-emaciated body shape – not to mention the proud ownership of anything over an AA cup – is fashionable once more proliferate. Has fashion suddenly developed a conscience, one might not unreasonably wonder? That, it almost goes without saying, is less than likely. While it is true that at least part of the story here is rooted in pragmatism – and to be precise in an awareness that designer clothing is not generally aimed at the pre-pubescent market – any new-found interest in roundness is predominantly rooted in aesthetics rather than any heartfelt acceptance of women in their most natural form. Those ahead of their game – and both Jacobs and Prada are fashion frontrunners par excellence – are far from famed for a lengthy attention span, after all. They are most likely simply bored by a world that dictates that a narrow shoulder, dropped waist and androgynous silhouette is the look to aspire to, just as it has been for seasons, if not years.

And so a New New Look is born. If any cultural context is to be read into that, it may perhaps be found in a look back at the old New Look and the circumstances out of which it sprang. Christian Dior's 1947 New Look was a nostalgic – and extravagant – glance back at a prewar period where fabric rationing was about as far from the collective consciousness as women going out to work. In 2010, however, as the luxury-goods industry emerges shakily from the worst crash since the Thirties, such excess – both where the clothes themselves and the women who choose to wear them are concerned – is a similarly welcome flight of fancy in an all-too-downtrodden world.

Why not celebrate femininity in its most idealised and exaggerated incarnation under such circumstances? And what's the harm of enveloping it in metres of eye-wateringly expensive materials if that tells the world that the designers who do so are a) powerful enough not to concern themselves with anything as po-faced as seemly understatement, and b) brave enough to fly in the face of any adversity, safe in the knowledge that aspiration, over and above hard-bitten reality, is what their customer is currently looking for.

Perhaps predictably, things are not quite as simple as all that. If, at first glance, cut and proportion that seems romantic in the extreme, and a projection of femininity that, in the real world, the heterosexual male may only dream of seems to be the order of the day, the style in question is not, as has been argued, straight out of Mad Men. That would be too obvious by far. Pastiche is not something that the world's most directional designers readily resort to.

This time around, ample hips, a soft shoulder, tiny waist, and breasts so prominent that even the most politically aware onlooker might be forgiven for gawping at them (hello boys!), are dressed in colours and fabrics that are less chintzy and more tweedy, less pink and pretty and more sludgy than M Dior ever intended. At Prada, print is reminiscent of Fifties soft furnishings and Formica tabletops than anything more readily associated with clothing. The Louis Vuitton dress photographed here, meanwhile, references staples of mid-20th century haute couture including quilting, feathers and silk chiffon, but in a manner that is anything but conventional: the quilting is on the outside of the garment, and in fabric so impossibly fine that the feathers show through. It's all just that little bit wrong, then – the wanton juxtaposed with the more dowdy – and seems relevant and, more importantly, no less beautiful for that. The court shoes that finish the style, equally, are nothing short of radical in their conformity, given the increasingly ridiculous, heavily articulated, platform-soled monsters that have rocked fashion – often quite literally – for longer than is strictly advisable.

Will such an unadulterated celebration of overt femininity ever last? Not if Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton or Miuccia Prada have anything to do with it, truth to tell. The ability of these two designers to change their minds at breakneck speed, as all while the rest of the fashion world struggles to keep up with them, is at least part of the secret of any success here. And so, inevitably, the former has moved on to uphold the values of anything and everything that is kitsch next season, from Lurex to bugle beads, while the latter is more interested in strictly functional fabrics, eye-popping block colour and a particularly fetching, not to mention quite witty, banana print.

As for designers' choice of models: a more diverse view of womanhood, and one that takes personality into account, does seem to have taken hold. Throughout the spring/summer collections, which closed earlier this month, everyone from Yasmin Le Bon (as lovely as ever at John Galliano) to Inès de la Fressange (for Chanel) made an appearance and, yes, there was more than a little evidence too that those with an unrealistically boyish frame are no longer the only option, although most casting still decrees that slenderness is the Holy Grail.

Six months from now, however, the well-endowed will no longer be pouring themselves into cantilevered gowns safe in the knowledge that their cleavage is their greatest asset. Fashion is nothing if not contrary – which means that, almost across the board, a low-cut neckline and/or full breast will be replaced by an exposed back, as proudly on display everywhere from Celine to Yohji Yamamoto, and from Givenchy to Marios Schwab. Suffice it to say that, in such capable hands, it looks lovely. Some things are obvious though, among them the fact that this is not a look ever likely to be embraced by those in need of anything as pedestrian as, for example, a bra.

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