There was a time when the presence of balloons in a fashion context suggested one thing: whimsy. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, ads and editorial imagery were frequently buoyed by these free-floating, brightly-coloured party accessories.
Tim Walker staged them cascading from the windows of stately homes. Steven Meisel photographed juicy red bunches packed into the backs of cars or escaping from an outstretched hand. Tracing a lineage all the way back to Richard Avedon’s publicity shots of Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, these were balloons as high fantasy – symbols of freedom and romance, suggesting that there was nothing more charming than a well-dressed girl clutching something decorative and childlike that might just carry her away.
It’s a far cry from Emma Corrin’s balloon-festooned Loewe dress worn to the Olivier Awards the other day. Fresh from the Spanish brand’s AW22 show, a high camp melange of surrealism and futurism that featured faux-furry pelts, body parts and mini dresses shaped like cars, this particular gown was anything but twee.
The form-fitting garment featured a printed background of balloons accessorised with a beige balloon breastplate, the tied rubber nozzles sticking out suggestively like wonky nipples (or, more unsettlingly, Shrek’s ears). As with a number of Corrin’s other red-carpet outfits – the Frankensteinian Prada gown made of clashing fabrics and textures, the lavender Marco Ribeiro two-piece that sat somewhere between Prince and decorative hag stones – it was pleasingly perplexing. Think of it as the kind of look guaranteed to alienate a lot of people, or at the very least leave a breakfast TV presenter lost for words.
In these matters, Corrin has form. Working with stylist Harry Lambert, they have developed a considered aesthetic that values the odd and off-kilter. No frothy ballgowns or suits softened with feminine heels and a nice little diamond necklace here. Much better to be a Pierrot or a bonneted puritan accessorised with clawed talons. It’s enjoyable to see someone having so much fun with what they wear (in an Instagram post the actor raised a cheer for “god damn CAMP !!”), embracing the unconventional over the pretty.
Corrin isn’t the only celebrity these past few weeks to have worn a Loewe piece that raised eyebrows. In early April, Leeds United player Kalvin Phillips was pictured in a pair of moon boots from the same FW22 collection designed by creative director Jonathan Anderson. Sitting in a baggy gather of fabric around the ankle, the boots were vaguely reminiscent of a plastic bag tied over a shoe to brave floods, muddy festivals or to visit someone who is particularly finicky about their carpet.
The media reaction was one of instant bemusement, with journos writing headlines about Phillips’ “baffling and “bemusing” footwear choices, and Manchester City midfielder Jack Grealish replying to a Phillips Instagram post with “Good to see you back, bro <3 And if you ever wear them shoes and that outfit again I’m unfollowing you.” Ouch.
From the heady days of Björk’s swan dress at the Oscars onwards, the idea of the fashion faux pas has been valuable fodder. From teen magazines to tabloids, the “worst dressed” list used to fuel many a publication, with special ire reserved for those garments that moved beyond being merely boring or badly fitting into the realm of the ugly or the hard to understand. These days the critics aren’t quite as vicious (few tweets sting as sharply as Joan Rivers doing the Fashion Police red carpet, most of which probably wouldn’t fly these days), but a general mistrust of the sartorially strange continues. In the Daily Mail dictionary of most-used words to describe famous people wearing clothes, anything that can’t be flaunted, shown off, or flashed a glimpse of is still liable to be labelled “bizarre”.
Thank god, then, for designers like Jonathan Anderson, who are still happily waving the flag for intelligently freaky designs. What’s so brilliant about that balloon dress is its uneasily fleshy implications. Like Christopher Kane, who also loves a kinky undertone and an unexpected design detail (coloured gel inserts, rubber glove motifs), Anderson understands the weirdness and tactility of the body.
What feels notable is how many famous figures are embracing that weirdness, bringing it directly into the mainstream. See, too, the number of celebrities – Corrin included – who have recently worn pieces by Schiaparelli: creative director Daniel Roseberry is continuing to pay homage to his surrealist predecessor in the form of moulded breastplates, gold jewellery shaped like eyes and ears, and a lot of theatrically silhouetted gowns.
Designers like Anderson, Kane and Roseberry are unafraid of ugliness and humour, instead happy to lean into the vulgar. “I’m a great believer in vulgarity – if it’s got vitality,” Diana Vreeland once said. “A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste… No taste is what I’m against.” In saying this, she was winking at Salvador Dalí, who was outspoken in his suspicion of good taste, claiming that it led to creative sterility.
Dressing can and should be a place of intensity and experimentation. Ideally, it should challenge our understanding of taste altogether. Taste, after all, is a mercurial thing, endlessly reacting and changing. Backstage after the Loewe AW22 show, it was reported that Anderson had said “A balloon creates tension… It will pop. It won’t last forever.” That’s an apt summary of fashion, too.
Its ephemerality might land fashion with accusations of frivolity, but it’s also a great gift: a promise of ever-renewing opportunities to play with established codes and subvert what came before. It’s always refreshing to see big label designers run with that idea full throttle, making bizarreness a point of pride rather than something to be viewed with tentative apology.