Now & Then: The Statement Outfit

Strategic Style: How the language of our clothing affects people and our culture.

Our clothing speaks volumes about us. Silently communicating our sex, age and class even giving away important clues  – or red herrings – about our occupation, opinions and state of mind. While human beings have communicated with one another in the language of dress for thousands of years, some outfits are figuratively shouting out loud their wearer’s state of mind.

Let’s take Katie Holmes’ recent makeover. Since Holmes filed for divorce in a New York court eleven days ago, her wardrobe choices have been carefully orchestrated to leverage media exposure. From the sweet tops, no-make up and practical ballet flats – suitable for ice-cream outings with Suri – to the glossy and groomed look – a navy silk dress from her own line, Holmes & Yang and bold heels by Roger Vivier –  for a guest appearance on Project Runway, it’s clear she’s well aware of the strategic effect of her image on divorce proceedings and public opinion.

We’re familiar with the idea of statement pieces, usually bold and interesting accessories – rings, sunglasses and purses that connotate a sense of signature style. But what about the outfits documented through history that, upon closer inspection, have consciously been chosen by the wearer to broadcast a signature statement?

Was there ever a dress more aware of its symbolism than Kate Middleton’s Alexander McQueen wedding dress? A collaboration between the bride and U.K. designer Sarah Burton, the ivory silk tulle dress was notable for its demure long sleves, hand appliquéd with different lace symbols of Great Britain: the rose of England, Scottish thistles, Welsh daffodils and Irish shamrocks. Described by Vogue as a “a feat of appropriateness,” this was a choice that perhaps deliberately evoked Princess Grace’s iconic wedding dress – a fellow “commoner” who also married into royalty with a steadfast intention to never put a foot wrong.

In contrast, a low-cut, short black dress worn by Princess Diana to the Serpentine Gallery in 1994, on the evening Prince Charles admitted adultery with Camilla Parker-Bowles on British television, was designed to raise eyebrows. Designed by Christina Stambolia, the “revenge” dress was thought to convey a clear message of defiance against the royal establishment. Queen Elizabeth was said to have urged the couple to reach a final agreement shortly after, before the couple’s separation and divorce seriously damaged the monarchy.

When Grace Kelly arrived in Monaco on April 12, 1956 for her wedding to Prince Rainier, she choose to wear a stylish navy Ben Zuckerman coat and a large white organdy hat.  The hat’s extra wide brim shielded much of her face, famously dismaying the Monegasques and worlds attending press, who were hoping to get a look at her. Will we ever know if it was a self conscious signal on her part, guarding her last moment of personal freedom before the subsequent unveiling of a very public Princess Grace.

Known to be fully aware of the considerable political capital of her style, Jacqueline Kennedy could’ve never imagined the shocking effect her pink boucle Chanel-style suit would eventually have on that fateful November day in 1962. Despite efforts to get her to change out of her clothes, her decision to keep wearing the blood and gore spattered suit onboard Air Force One for LBJ’s swearing-in was deliberate.  “Let them see what they’ve done, she insisted.”

Want to catch up on some more fashion history?

Now & Then: The History of the “It” Bag

Now & Then: The History of Flared Pants

Now & Then: The History of the Ballet Flat

Now & Then: The History of Shorts

Now & Then: Met Ball’s Most Memorable Dresses

Now & Then: The History of the Breton Shirt

Now & Then: The History of the Platform Shoe

Now & Then: The History of Fitness Wear

Now & Then: The History of the Pencil Skirt

Now & Then: The History of the Cocktail Dress

Now & Then: The History of Skinny Jeans

Read more Now & Then articles here.



Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.