As Sir Paul Smith said in an inspirational speech at 2013’s Vogue Festival, “You can find inspiration in everything; if you can’t you’re not looking properly.” For this majorly successful English fashion designer this inspiration comes in the form of decorative wallpapers, abstractly-structured furniture and the Chelsea Flower Show. For me, it comes in the form of books. Obviously I am no fashion designer, but I personally feel that literature – the themes it explores, the worlds it creates, the aspects of society it reflects – can in fact spark off a chain reaction of creative development and be translated into a whole range of media, be that film, art, or, perhaps most importantly, fashion. And why shouldn’t it? After all, didn’t C.S. Lewis say “Literature adds to reality”? Perhaps society’s love of clothing wasn’t exactly what he had in mind when he said these words, but it is certainly true that we can see literature’s influence on this part of our reality that we simply couldn’t live without.
Once again, it is that time of year: the leaves begin their autumnal progression through darkening hues of yellow and brown, curling up like dried out paper before they float elegantly down to the ground; all around school you see girls clinging to radiators as the bitingly chilly air whistles through the corridors; the lack of light becomes an increasingly prominent force, darkness presiding both when leaving home in the morning and when returning there in the evening. Perhaps it is a reflection of this rather sombre weather, but it seems that as the days get darker, so too do the shades of our clothing. Away with the floral mini-skirts: black leggings, tights or dark jeans become everyday necessities, legs ensconced in them to protect against the cold. Each outfit is topped by duffels, cape coats, leather jackets or Barbours, rendering the overall look undeniably dark no matter what colours are worn underneath. And while the current ՝a la mode cuts and styles are always changing from winter to winter, this black colour trend certainly has no signs of abating as we approach this year’s chilly season.
From the high street to the high end, black clothing can be seen to play a prominent role in any Fall/Winter collection: not only will a jaunt into Topshop today guarantee to see you greeted by a sea of monochrome stretching as far as the eye can see, but merely scrolling through the Fall 2014 collections of such designers as Max Azria for Hervé Léger is sufficient to overwhelm one’s eyes with the hues of darkness. Last year even Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel was drawn to this eternally classic colour when it came to choosing the palette for the season’s ready-to-wear range (albeit with the addition of a few twinkling and metallic threads thrown in amongst the darks). The giant shadowy globe and black backdrop at Chanel’s Paris show only serving to strengthen the impact, the 2013 collection was full of dominatrix-style black leather thigh-high boots, complete with decorative silver chaining, and dipped-hem coats in various mixes of black and dark grey whose high collars rendered the wearer looking akin to a witchy version of an Elizabethan courtier. Yet there remained something irresistibly alluring and mysterious about the clothing; as Tim Blanks, writer for Style.com, said in his account of the show: “there was a sepulchral undercurrent that was utterly seductive”, a quote which to me epitomises the romantically Gothic tone of the dark clothing trend.
To many people the word ‘Gothic’ evokes strongly stereotypical connotations of contemporary black-haired screamo-music loving ‘goths’, or else, particularly considering the recent Halloween fever of this time of year, images of witches, cauldrons and bats. Yet in the word association game going on in my own mind, the immediate match whenever I hear someone say ‘Gothic’ would have to be another favourite word of mine: ‘literature’. Undoubtedly the most spine-tingling of literary genres, Gothicism/Gothic fiction (now the subject of a new exhibition, ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’, at the British Library this season) originated in the eighteenth century with the publication of Horace Walpole’s novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ in 1764, perhaps the most seemingly ironic thing about Gothic literature’s birth being that it grew out of the age of Romanticism. Indeed it was actually the Romantic poets themselves who came to define the Gothic genre during that period: one monstrously stormy night in 1816, whilst on holiday on the banks of Lake Geneva – the crackling lightning striking the black sky akin to the electric sparks pulsing through a scientist’s laboratory – the celebrated Romantics Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary Shelley, and John William Polidori partook in a much-speculated and fascinating ghost-story competition that saw the creation not only of Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ but also of Mary Shelley’s novel ‘Frankenstein’, one of the most influential classic masterpieces of all time. However, if there is any one novel which to me encapsulates the thrilling sense of terror and emphasis on emotions that characterises the Gothic genre (the latter rendering Gothicism something of an extension of Romantic fiction) it would have to be Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. Published in 1897, this unnerving tale of the eponymous Transylvanian vampire is one that has achieved iconic status in the years since its first appearance, spawning numerous film and theatrical adaptations thanks to Stoker’s masterful creation of a character who has become so well-known as to be in the eyes of many the definitive manifestation of this nightmarish creature (even though Stoker was by no means the inventor of the vampire concept); this character is, of course, Count Dracula, a name whose mere utterance is enough to send an involuntary shiver down the spine of even the bravest. For though we know that this evil being is merely a figment of Stoker’s imagination, whose ominous presence can be blotted from our consciousness by the simple closing of a book, it is most significantly the concept of Dracula and the impending sense of doom he stands for that makes the character so terrifying and enthralling in equal measure.
In the novel, the first time readers see this menace appear before them comes in a diary entry of English solicitor Jonathan Harker, who writes: “Within, stood a tall old man, clean-shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere.” What these words represent to me, perhaps more strongly than anything else about this character, is the undeniable power and presence that the Count commands; couple this with the ever-alluring themes of romance and sexual awakening which Stoker personifies through his female protagonists, the innocent and loyal Wilhelmina ‘Mina’ Murray and the flirtatiously beautiful Lucy Westenra, and it is easy to see why ‘Dracula’ is such a vividly influential novel when it comes to the world of clothing. For surely the book’s romantic, sensual and powerful elements are things which fashion designers aspire towards achieving in their own collections, time and time again – after all, what sort of woman ever tires of feeling she is the embodiment of qualities such as these? Perhaps this is why year in and year out designers are seduced by the absence of colour in the titular character’s attire; why waif-like models dressed in black fiercely stalk every catwalk as if they were queens of the world; why there is nothing so mysteriously powerful as a simple LBD. One thing is certainly clear to see: Dracula the vampire may have failed in his invasion of England, yet ‘Dracula’ the novel has well and truly conquered the British fashion scene.
By Rebecca Hutchings