Radical Softness: A Strong Vision, Softly Spoken

Hyperfemininity is challenging the suit to its power-dressing crown. Could radical softness be the new frontier of femininity in fashion?

In 2015, queer artist Lora Mathis coined the phrase “radical softness as a weapon,” summarizing a feeling that many women will be familiar with. The niggling feeling that patriarchy isn’t working, and maybe there was a better way to live. Maybe empathy and inclusion, vulnerability and courage, could work a little better than power struggles, oppression, and warfare. Maybe if we softened the edges, life might be a slightly easier pill to swallow. Their message went viral: “In a society that presents stoicism as strength, sharing your emotions openly is a political move.” I rediscovered Mathis’ work recently, and it got me thinking about how radical softness could be interpreted in fashion. The way we dress says a lot about who we are, but it also speaks to how we want to be perceived, and right now, radical softness feels like a pretty good aspiration.

At its most basic, fashion — or maybe more fittingly, clothing — is there to shield us from the elements. It keeps us warm in winter, cool in summer and dry when it rains. But clothing isn’t just a physical armor, it also serves as an emotional guard. On the days when vulnerability veers on weakness and insecurities seem overwhelming, fashion can act as a decoy, tricking both ourselves and the people we meet that day into thinking that we are totally fine. So the idea of power dressing is nothing new. The problem is, in the fashion lexicon, power dressing means assimilating to patriarchal ideals of power; to the white, male default. How many times have you reached for a ‘power suit’ over a dress? Just look at Hillary Clinton. She has a whole rainbow of pantsuits carefully curated to mimic her male counterparts; the standard pop of color is her only nod to femininity.

Radical softness comes from professor/speaker Brene Brown’s school of thought, harnessing vulnerability as the key to courage. As Brene says in her new Netflix special, “You’re going to know failure if you’re brave with your life.” In other words, in order to live a full life, you have to accept that vulnerability will be part of it. What that means for power dressing is this: we need to subvert what we see as powerful. For so long, power dressing has meant wearing a suit, dressing like a man and minimizing femininity, because it is associated with softness. But if vulnerability and strength go hand in hand, so do femininity and power. 

I asked Lora what they thought radical softness looked like in fashion. “As I was beginning to create visual work exploring radical softness, my style became hyper-feminine and focused on pastel colors,” they said. “Much of this was influenced by artists in Montreal who I also consider a large part of the concept of radical softness: Stella Starchild, Ambivalently Yours, Laurence Philomene, Flora Fauna. They had their own community and were wearing soft colors and played with lots of pinks.”

For Lora, exploring radical softness in fashion also meant exploring their gender identity, grappling with traditional notions of femininity and power. “I was questioning my gender and not feeling like a woman,” they continued. “The pastels felt like a dressing up of femininity, of being inside it but in a contrived, performative way. Emotions and pink are both often written off as purely belong to the feminine realm, and therefore being attached to weakness. Perhaps my tendency to dress head to toe in the color was to poke at this idea of it being weak.”

Perhaps radical softness looks like hyperfemininity, the style embraced by Molly Goddard, Giambattista Valli and Simone Rocha. Instead of small doses, their clothes allow you to swaddle yourself in softness: hot pink bubbles of tulle and billowing marshmallow parachutes. Maybe it is the unapologetically yonic trousers Janelle Monáe wore in her Pynk music video, designed by Amsterdam-based designer Duran Lantink. This hyperfemininity is hardcore softness, taking up space and refusing to shrink itself.

Swiss designer Pauline de Blonay has her own version of radical softness. The Central Saint Martins graduate recently won second place in the L’Oréal Pro Young Talent Womenswear award for her take on “fragile strength.” Crayola-colored suits with exaggerated shoulders and cropped flares are paired with molded silver armor, strapped to the chest with soft and supple leather. In another look, enlarged metal nipples mimic medieval chainmail. ‘Breastplates’ in the most literal form, these feminine forms represent an armor ill-equipped for combat, and a wearer who is entirely okay with that. “Doing the soft body parts in soft, heavy metal was an expression of that fragile strength,” Pauline explains. “It’s a vulnerability that everyone has in themselves, but we don’t see it because we don’t talk about it or people hide it.”

The collection dances on the line between strength and fragility, external assumptions and internal truth, masculinity and femininity. “We can look really strong but be quite fragile inside,” she continues. “You can put out a strong image of yourself, but there’s always more inside that we don’t see.” Several items in her collection are made from paper-thin fabric backed in aluminum tape, allowing the wearer to play sculptor and shape the clothes to their bodies. For Pauline, this translates to a malleable strength, one that adapts to difficult situations and endures changes: “In my work, I wanted to do these things that don’t just have one shape. It can look really strong and powerful and big, but you can remold it, break the shape. It’s strong and fragile at the same time.”

Pauline isn’t the first designer to use the female form in clothing. Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter collection in 1999 featured curvaceous body casts in cool silver metal. Skim the images of Irish designer Sinead O’Dwyer’s first collection and you may think it looks entirely unwearable, more like art than fashion. In fact, it’s a critique of the way fashion fits women’s bodies – or rather, doesn’t. Inspired by the experience of trying to squeeze her hips into skirts that sagged around the waist and contort her breasts into tops that gaped around her shoulders, Sinead decided to flip the idea of sizing on its head. Her designs are made from plaster cast molds of her models, perfectly hugging the parts of their bodies they love most. The result is a collection of fiberglass molds, marbled with silicone paints in pastel hues, that are simultaneously soft and strong. They are unapologetically feminine, shaped by the female gaze and made to celebrate the body parts the wearers loved most, not hide their insecurities. A perfect representation of radical softness.

This article was written for the American publication, Perfect Number. For pictures of Lora and Pauline’s work, you can view the article in its original format here.

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