Proportions and high/low: Lessons from womenswear

Proportions and high/low: Lessons from womenswear

Monday, January 9th 2023

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By André Larnyoh

The world of women’s fashion is huge. In variety, scope and scale, it towers above menswear. Yet, usually, men keep women’s styling at arm’s length, because it seems so different to what we know, and because it isn’t made for us.

However it’s not uncommon for women and women’s designers to pick up cues from what menswear and adapt them. So I’ve been thinking about the opposite: what can a man learn from women and their approach to clothing?

There are many things of course, from individual pieces to interesting colour combinations, but one that strikes me is the inherent innovation and creativity of womenswear. Women’s clothing often seems more expressive and playful, which is something I’m interested in exploring to break up the serious sobriety of men’s fashion.

The tricky question I’ve run into is, what can be taken from that side of fashion without being over the top? What can be expressive but also practical and honest?

Consider the designer Molly Goddard, for example. She makes dresses that I think are stunning to look at, in terms of quality, make and shape (above). But I’m not going to wear one any time soon, and her menswear range is less interesting. Therefore, what can I take from it?

A large part of the appeal of her designs is an understanding of proportion, and how this can, in a garment, take up space. Physically and fundamentally it creates stature.

As someone who prefers wider or more relaxed silhouettes, this idea of making creating space through proportion really speaks to me, and this thought process has led me to be inspired by women I’ve seen who take this further without necessarily resorting to extravagance. Think a very large coat with the sleeves rolled up, an untucked cotton poplin shirt cut oversized or bought 2-3 sizes too big, and wider-than-wide trousers.

Melissa Jane Tarling (above), a stylist and art director, is someone whose personal style is all about playing with or utilising the effects of proportion.

She favours voluminous tailoring – loose jackets and trousers or skirts, blouse-like shirts with long sleeves, large overcoats in varying earth tones. They often recall those eighties Ralph Lauren or Armani ads, though whether consciously or not I’m not sure.

You’d think all this flowey clothing would just create a mess of fabrics, but there is in fact cohesion – everything flows together ,even when it’s a mix of makers and brands. There are elements of fashion (Nanushka or Ferragamo) but the overall look is more traditional, reminiscent of 20th century artists or Mediterranean rural lifestyles. There’s a classical elegance yet it still feels modern.

So, how do I begin to dissect such a strong look and find what a man can take from it?

The first thing is playing around with layering, and paying attention to how materials move in different shapes and sizes. Linens and wools, sweaters in a relaxed cut and unstructured double-breasted jackets. Larger scarves that aren’t just oversized but stoles, which makers such as Begg x Co do in attractive neutral hues.

It’s arguably not far off the look Adret is known for (below), but whereas that has its roots in a specific style and a texture of garment, Melissa’s feels and looks cleaner and contemporary. It’s more personal because it’s been built up with a variety of brands.

Nowadays we go to great lengths to subvert tailoring, to contrast it with more casual clothing in order to make it more relaxed. Yet this is a second area where women have been doing far better for far longer, in my opinion.

Take Ralph Lauren famously donning a pair of faded jeans with black tie. Yes, it is a valid example, but it’s really a look few can co-opt without looking like they’re trying to emulate the man himself. Whereas the inherent freedom of womenswear, with its huge variety of styles, makes it easier to mix things up, to freshen what we consider classic pieces and make them more interesting, or simply relax and subvert expectations.

I saw a perfect example over the summer while sitting having coffee. Two women in their sixties were wearing voluminous Molly Goddard dresses – one white and one pink – but worn over the top, to stave off the chill of air conditioning, were MA-1 bomber jackets from Alpha Industries.

My biggest regret is I didn’t take a picture, because it encapsulated not only high/low dressing but also that balance of masculine and feminine. The contrast made it interesting: the unexpected with the conventional, the delicate with the durable.

This kind of statement dressing is not something most men will want to adopt, but there are always examples in womenswear – like the woman below mixing heels, a flowing skirt and bright nylon gilet. Simple, but punchy.

This inspiration has encouraged me to take greater risks, looking for combinations where such high contrast is possible without looking ridiculous.

It’s also often, I think, about adding a layer of comfort to otherwise sharp and perhaps restrictive clothing. It’s vintage 501s with silk shirts; it’s leaving the overcoat at home and throwing on a well-worn chore coat over that otherwise immaculate dark suit and roll neck on your way to dinner; or it’s choosing to wear highly divisive jazz shoes with tailoring, simply because they’re more comfortable. It’s something that men such as Gauthier Borsarello (below) do very well.

When looked at in these ways, you can start to see that women’s fashion needn’t be kept that far away from men’s. Again, this is not to advocate simply co-opting womenswear (unless that’s your own particular style or desire, in which case more power to you).

Rather, these are just a few thoughts and examples that I have found inspiring, after months of the subject rattling around in my head. It’ll be interesting to see what more comes up, for me and perhaps for readers too. The wonderful thing about women’s fashion is, there’s so much to choose from. The world of womenswear is huge.