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A Case for Covering Up

Why are we swathed in more fabric than ever before, even as the temperature soars?

If you go to runway shows all the time, after a while nothing fazes you—not reenactments of Highlands rapes (McQueen, fall 1995); benches collapsing (Balenciaga, spring 2012); models in coffins (Thom Browne, fall 2012); or even a sheep reluctantly taking to the catwalk (Miguel Adrover, fall 2001). So is it any wonder that when Prada proposes serious mink coats for summer 2013, no one in the audience even blinks a cream-shadowed eye?

The Prada coat (a highly desirable and beautiful item, by the way, especially if you subvert Miuccia Prada’s intentions and save it for next December) is but a single example of the tendency this season for designers to cover you up as temperatures climb. Junya Watanabe sees you buried in heat-seeking nylon; The Row wants to swaddle you in cashmere. At Valentino, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli think you should spend a warm evening clad in a demure round-necked, long-sleeved eyelet frock. (Could they have been counting on the other presidential candidate winning the election, ushering in an era of high-collared, alcohol-free Washington cocktail parties?)

As told in the Bible, Sarah greets the Egyptians in layered and embellished style

It may be strange in an era of global warming, but fashion is often a little peculiar—isn’t that what makes it, well, at least marginally fun? Actually, this business of weather-discordant dressing is nothing new: It stretches back to ancient times, at least if my recollection of The Golden Book of Bible Stories can be considered a reliable source. Here are Rachel and Sarah swathed in sheets of pristine ivory fabric. (Eve, of course, is an entirely different story.) No matter how hot it gets in the Negev, no one is trotting through the Red Sea in a monokini.

This propensity to enrobe oneself in lugubrious garments is the order of the day through the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, but jump ahead a little—railroads are beginning to rumble, photography is a mere click away, flush toilets will gurgle soon enough—and the pendulum has swung, at least briefly, in the other direction. Chic young ladies are spending the Napoleonic era flitting around in sheer short-sleeved, low-necked Empire frocks and flimsy slippers, regardless of the bone-chilling climes and the foot-high drifts of snow. (And remember, winters were colder back then.) Alas, this sexy raiment is soon replaced by a mournful Victorian aesthetic that relies upon ridiculous hoop underpinnings, miles of ball fringe and layer upon layer of brocade and velvet, regardless of the suffocating heat just outside the (un-air-conditioned) cottage door.

Conservative Victorian women amble about in very full skirts and bow-tied bonnets

Attempts to rectify this situation were often met with ridicule. In the early 1850s, feminist Amelia Bloomer suggests covering your limbs—so prissy are the times that you can’t even say the word legs—with the puffy bifurcated skirt that bears her name. (Unfortunately, hardly anyone but Amelia chooses to wear it.) The late 19th century sees various other attempts—the Aesthetic Movement, of which Oscar Wilde is a proponent, loosens corsets, even as it envelopes you in tea gowns neck to ankle. It isn’t until around 1920, when young couples can be naughty in the backseats of automobiles and listen to suggestive tunes on the radio, that things really get going.

In the September 9, 1925, issue of The New Republic (I have a copy right here, don’t you?), there is an essay titled “Flapper Jane” wherein the author, Bruce Bliven, describes his fictional 19-year-old heroine’s outfit: Her dress, as you can’t possibly help knowing if you have even one good eye, and get around at all outside the Old People’s Home, is also brief. It is cut low where it might be high, and vice versa. The skirt comes just an inch below her knees, overlapping by a faint fraction her rolled and twisted stockings…

Miu Miu, Prada, and Valentino

And if Jane and her sisters can drink bathtub gin and dance the Black Bottom in a rouged-knee-revealing backless, almost frontless beaded shift, even as a blizzard rages, why shouldn’t her jaunty great-granddaughter spend the summer of 2013 traipsing down Jobs Lane in a tie-dyed Miu Miu fox stole tossed insouciantly over an ankle-length denim duster? Her feet may be clammy and soggy in fur-lined Céline sandals, but rest assured, her fashionable spirits will be soaring.