According to Ernest Hemingway, the experience of writing is easy. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter, and bleed.” Of course, Hemingway could also have been talking about the experience of writing while wearing a particular style of dress. It’s a dress that is doing the rounds on the red carpet. It’s on the pages of Vogue and at the ritziest parties. We’re calling it the poser dress. You might not literally bleed when you wear it, but it is so fitted, it renders the simplest of tasks – walking, kneeling, waving, praying, swallowing, laughing and, yes, sitting – almost impossible. What a time to be alive.
Full length, long sleeved and fitted – often “like a sheath”, wrote one critic without euphemism – the poser dress has been on our radar since late August, when the autumn collections crept on to our feeds. An umbrella term for the sort of floral printed dresses made by Balenciaga, then Zara and Topshop, the summer versions were accessible. And fun. They often came with a slit (good for stairs), were worn with a nice white boot and enjoyed an Arcadian existence on Instagram and the frow. Then the clocks went back and the poser dress was reborn as something dark, moody and gothic.
Don’t be alarmed. The poser dress has two key attributes, but both make it surprisingly wearable. One is the shape, which is fitted but shows very little skin. Hurrah! And second is the fabric, which can be jacquard, silk, chiffon or lamé – something stiff. Leading the charge is The Vampire’s Wife, co-founded by Susie Bick in 2014. Her neo-goth “floor sweepers” (her words) have become the sleeper hit of the season. Cate Blanchett, Ruth Negga, Salma Hayek and Kate Moss all wear her; Moss even nicknamed them “Little House on the Prairie dresses”. Alessandra Rich does something pricier in lace and nostalgic prints. As do, on the high street, Topshop and Zara. See also Erdem, Emilia Wickstead and Self-Portrait, whose dress of the year was rooted in its immovability. The experience of wearing one is interesting. A bronze version by The Vampire’s Wife isn’t as hot as you imagine, but effectively feels like you’re in a condom. Or are a mermaid. Either, really.
If we want to put a pin into what’s happening now in womenswear, then this dress is a good start. For one, we are entering festive party season. And, as is tradition, we tend to reward social obligations with a new dress that also keeps us warm and covered. That you look best standing still makes them ideal for photographing, too (if we needed proof of the power Instagram wields over fashion, look no further). But with most physical activities ruled out, to wear the poser dress is also to telegraph your status as someone who doesn’t have to walk too far, doesn’t plan to sit down and doesn’t plan on eating too much. You could call it the Uber dress. You could even call it the 1% dress. The onus is on how it looks rather than how it feels, the neo-goth commodified.
Added up, it’s stuff such as this – the idea of wearing a dress that stops you from doing anything – that gets fashion a bad rap, especially when presented in as stratified a society as this. For shame. One could easily make comparisons with caged crinolines, or corsets. We usually associate the idea of liberation in fashion as utilitarian, of allowing us to do stuff. For women, it allows us to be more than a gaze. But just as John Berger made the case that how we are directed to look at something determines what we see, in wearing something that celebrates the female form without making it the focus, the poser dress is actually empowering. Fashion historian Monica Sklar agrees: “The idea of control over the shape of a women’s body to match the times is always there, [but] it’s more so a question of who is in control and who is getting what out of the equation.” Being in control of how someone looks at you “through maintaining a stationary [position] is empowering”.
These dresses reflect a move away from glam sexualisation of women’s bodies, and the poser is emblematic of what we now deem sexy. Ten years ago, before the Daily Mail co-opted the phrasing, the New York Times declared the Pour-Me-Into-It the dress of the season, based on the late Hervé Léger’s bandage dress. Short, tight, booby, this style of dress was constructed for the female form but became the object of the male gaze. By contrast, the poser dress is sexy without flashing flesh – the body is implied, and – unusually – there is no cleavage. Sklar agrees: “The idea of romanticising the female human form does not necessarily indicate it is all designed for male gaze.” You also need a body to wear it – it’s not a dress for models, so it’s unlikely you’ll see this on the cover of Vogue.
Last week, a new exhibition opened, focusing on how we photograph the body in fashion. Posturing: Photographing the Body in Fashion celebrates fashion photography, but its focus is on the way the models stand, rather than what they are wearing. It posits that how you pose in a dress is more important than the dress itself. ”In many ways, the function of fashion photography is to advertise the garment,” says co-curator and fashion curator Shonagh Marshall. “So how we stand affects how we look at the clothes far more than you realise.” If, then, the poser dress is designed to be worn standing still, all power to the woman wearing it. Just don’t try typing in it.