Edited by Tara Farrell
White is big news both on and off the catwalk.
At Paris Fashion Week this February one of the hottest tickets was the Claude Monet exhibition at the Grand Palais. Monet is known as a master of bold colour, but what struck fashion editors was rather how in painting after painting, colours melt into white. The Thames Below Westminster shows London hazed with a milky air, Stormy Weather at Etretat is a sea of white foam under a whitening sky, and other paintings are radiant with women in white. Take Study of a Figure Outdoors (facing left). A woman stands on a hill, her skirt and blouse like one of the blown clouds in the sky behind her. She’s an emblem of happiness, of summer itself.
It all resonated with one of fashion’s big trips for spring: pure, lustrous white. And not white as an accent, the way we’re used to it, but worn head to toe; whites layered over more whites in different fabrics and unexpected textures. The collection that kick-started Fashion Week was Riccardo Tisci’s couture collection for Givenchy. His signature Gothic black was dismissed in favour of blazing white worn in layers: white embroidery, white fringing, white lace, white leather appliqué and bleached fur jackets together with white tights, white shoes and bags, even white rings. All these textures worn together in any other colour would have overwhelmed. In white it felt vibrant, ringingly clean, like turning a fresh page.
White is a threshold colour. Women on the threshold of marriage wear it as brides, babies wear it to be christened, and until recently in some parts of the world, the dead were dressed in white shrouds. Perhaps the prominence of white to some is a sign of hope as we enter a new decade after 10 tumultuous years of war, economic meltdown and natural catastrophes. White is the colour of hope (Noah’s Dove) and of peace. We could do with some of that right now, and the advent of white may express a subliminal longing to draw a line under the past and step across that threshold into a brighter more coherent world.
Whereas it’s often been associated with innocence and virginity, those aren’t the connotations we need now, and they’re not the ones fashion designers are talking about. Alexander Wang, known for his cool, downtown mixing of black biker jackets with jeans, showed an almost completely white collection for spring. But this was not about softening up. “For me, white is about taking something perceived as soft and demure and injecting it with a progressive edge” he says. The models striding down his catwalk zinged with an almost solar white, the colour of pure energy.
For Dries Van Noten, whose beautiful show mixed white with accents of bright colour, white is now about confidence. “The idea that white is about innocence and virginity is just a cliché – and one that does not apply. To wear white you need to be mature. I am not talking about age. You can be 16 or 80 and be mature, or not. It’s about being a woman with attitude, a fresh, direct, rather strong woman.”
Van Notens influence for the show was Jef Verheyen, a Belgian painter who died in 1984, and whose work is having a revival. Once again its all about light. Verheyen was obsessed with trying to paint it. “I am interested in his use of colours that are diffractions of light, as well as white” explained Van Noten. The designer translated this into “paillettes, iridescent yarns, crisp white cotton and prints that bleach away to just a trace on a white ground.” He also places white over other colours, including black.
This is the crystal white of fairy stories, of Snow White, in her glass coffin, of the princess who lived on a mountain of glass, above all, of the Snow Queen. Riccardo Tisci seems to have had the Snow Queen in mind when he designed his floor-length dress encrusted with thousands of flashing crystals and ending in a long fringe of degradé ostrich feathers that looked like white flames licking up model Natasha Poly’s legs.
This flashing, stellar whiteness is a far cry from fluffy lambs and meek maidens. In Hans Christian Andersen’s version of the tale the Snow Queen, white is associated with regal allure. White is spaciousness, clarity. What about architects like Richard Meier and John Pawson, the white rooms designed by them are places for “spacing out”, for abstract thought free of emotional clutter and everyday demands. Célines spring/summer collection showed the aliveness of white that gives it exuberance, a kick. Phoebe Philo’s liberal use of head-to-toe white for the label this season captures the spirit of the times: luxury without excess or fuss, an easy confidence that doesn’t shout.
That’s the thing about white. It’s dazzling, it’s strong, but, paradoxicaly perhaps, it’s also serene. When composer John Cage saw Robert Rauschenberg’s series White Paintings in 1952 he said they “scared the shit out of me” but at the same time were “dear to me”. It was these paintings that gave Cage the courage to compose his famous 4’33”, a work that is often described as 4’33” of silence, when in fact; it is designed to be 4’33” of the sounds of the background environment. 4’33” is the sound of white: white noise. Fashion isn’t art and it isn’t conceptual music, obviously, its just the clothes on our back. But it’s those ways of thinking about white – Cage’s way, Monet’s way – that say something about the feeling we’ll be reaching for when we reach for a crisp white shirt come summer.