The hype surrounding Beyoncé’s new sportswear line, Ivy Park, is already off the scale. It’s not even launched yet, and it has already broken the internet, or at least photo-sharing sites such as Instagram. No surprise, you might say, she is very famous, and very zeitgeist. But that Ivy Park is, to an extent, a niche fashion genre – fitnesswear – as opposed to, say, shoes, suggests something is brewing in fashion. Why would the world’s most famous pop star (not to mention bellwether of style and fourth-wave feminist) undertake sportswear if it wasn’t a trend – sleeper, mass or otherwise? The brand’s manifesto has a go at answering this – “My goal with Ivy Park is to push the boundaries of athletic wear to support and inspire women who understand that beauty is more than your physical appearance” – but equally, this feels at odds with what you’re looking at: here is Beyoncé, in the rain, outdoors rather than in the gym, looking purposeful in a leotard, and wet. Could it be any sexier? (And: how am I meant to crosstrain in this?)
This looks like sportswear, but sportswear that you would also wear to a gig. It’s not really on the catwalk – at least not overarchingly so – and while sportswear and athleisure have always included tight-fitting pieces for various ergonomic and aesthetic reasons, none of it has really been “in fashion”. Athleisure, the closest fashion has come to accepting sportswear, tends to be loose-fitting, minimal and sometimes comes in cashmere. It’s also lucrative – athleisure is worth £6.4bn and looks set to increase over the next three years. Ivy Park is, arguably, more than sportswear. It’s a sideways take on bodycon – or bodycon 3.0 as we’re calling it, given that it’s not new – sitting somewhere between sportswear and fashion-tight. And, like bodycon, it’s sexy as hell, even if retailers aren’t selling it as such.
Short for “body conscious”, in layman’s terms bodycon is clothing – usually a dress – defined by its tightness. Historically, it’s one of the few trends that has leapt between catwalk and mass market. There’s version one: Jean Paul Gaultier’s outer-corsets; Hervé Léger’s bandage-style bodycon dresses which were, ostensibly, couture spanx; and “king of cling” Azzedine Alaïa’s creations, which dominated the tight market in the 90s. Version two, a slightly more formal take, was more about structure and tailoring than cling (see Roland Mouret’s galaxy dress and Victoria Beckham’s first collections). It was bodycon taken down a notch, but bodycon all the same.
Sitting simultaneously on the catwalk and in red-tops, bodycon has given us some memorable celebrity imagery: Liz Hurley safety-pinned into Versace at a film premiere; Eva Herzigova vacuum-packed into a lilac dress on the 1993 Hervé Léger catwalk; Victoria Beckham for the best part of the 2000s.
So, throughout the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, bodycon became the gold-standard of red-carpet fashion. This was status wear and power-dressing combined – the acme of sexiness, designed to giftwrap the body.
But for whom – the wearer? Unlikely. Bodycon was, arguably, womenswear designed for the male gaze. As fashion historian Amber Butchart explains, it’s a sign of the corset morphing from actual to internal, with bodies being shaped through diet and exercise instead. “This increased throughout the 20th century and reached an apex with the rise of bodycon,” she says.
If you think this feels at odds with new, gym-friendly bodycon – not to mention Asos bodysuits and Calvin Klein bralets (a bestseller at Selfridges) – then you’re right. This version is as tight as its forebears but is more focused on fitness and leisure, made with technical fabrics and with mesh detailing, for example. Is it merely a case of bodycon – sexy, tight and unforgiving – being skewed and rebranded back to us as something else entirely?
Instagram hasn’t helped: in the past few years, tight fitnesswear worn in or, increasingly, outside the gym has become acceptable to post. Ditto the way we post it – usually in the mirror, usually with the wearer’s iPhone camera in shot, so as to reclaim ownership of the image. It says: I am wearing this and I am photographing this and you, the viewer, are secondary. Concurrently, bikini shots appear to be on the decline, especially ones taken by your mates – which objectify the wearer by default. And yet, in terms of body coverage and flesh-flashing, they are one and the same, even if the latter focuses on celebrating women’s bodies rather than fetishising them. The internetification of self-image might have changed but the clothes haven’t.
In the past 10 years, the catwalk moved away from tight-fitting clothes, with brands such as Céline, Stella McCartney and The Row going for extreme minimalism. Kenya Hunt, fashion features director at Elle, thinks the demand shifted to “more volume and a more casual attitude” because it was easier to wear. The wide-legged trouser. The oversized cocoon coat. Various boyfriend-adjectived blazers, jeans and shirts. Cerebral fashion if you will. Christopher Kane, Marios Schwab and Saint Laurent leant towards fitted rather than loose, suggesting there was still appetite for this look, but on the whole, bodycon sat in the shadows of late 2000s minimalism. Until now, that is.
Butchart thinks the recent resurgence of feminism might have contributed to the phasing out of bodycon. “Not that there is anything ‘unfeminist’ about these styles by any means,” she says, “but that there is much more discussion now around identity politics and representation in the media, and creating spaces for previously unrepresented bodies.” The difference is palpable and the updated bodycon is aimed at all body types, with a focus on functionality and movement.
This is the thinking behind Selfridges brand-new Body Studio, a cavernous series of rooms dedicated to undergarments (swimwear, lingerie, hosiery) designed to be shopped by women. The designers, too, half of which aren’t household names, are predominantly women: The Upside, Michi, Lisa Marie Fernandez, Varley, Monreal are all designed by women and based on what they want to wear. Heather Gramston, buying manager for Body Studio, says: “This underwear, sleepwear and bodywear is intended to be seen. We’re seeing a shift away – to a small extent – from dictatorial beauty standards that the bodycon ‘gym body’ of the past seemed to represent.”
Aside from sportswear (for the gym or, at best, the pub), high fashion is wading in, from the tight-fitting negligee-style dresses at Céline, Givenchy and Balenciaga, to the knicker and bra shapes at JW Anderson, Marc Jacobs, Dries Van Noten and Saint Laurent’s AW16 collection. Hedi Slimane’s swansong for Saint Laurent, and the fact that Anthony Vaccarello, king of the tight, high hemline, has moved to the French fashion house, both suggest that this look may stick around for a while. The current issue of Vogue has a whole shoot geared around super-tight underwear worn outdoors, often caveated with a “Dare you?” caption.
If this is bodycon (and it almost certainly is), it smacks of the commercialisation of feminism, a savvy intersection between retailers and buyers that endorses tight clothing by not branding it overtly as sexy. Bodycon with a different narrative. Cynically speaking, it could be interpreted as health and wellness being sold back to us, a rebranding of sportswear as sexy but functional. Of course you can wear it to the gym – and doubtless people do – but, as the Vogue shoot testifies, it’s also designed to be seen: “Paco Rabanne heralds the return of the corseted playsuit with a new athletic twist. Do you dare to sport it alone?” The answer may well be “no”, but, as Gramston explains: “Who would have thought women would so embrace the pyjama trend?”
Yet fashion commentator Caryn Franklin remains unconvinced: “The latest bodycon look from Beyoncé is a credible offering of 21st-century womanhood despite the unnecessary smouldering and pouting in the marketing suggesting the male gaze is still paramount.” Still, she concedes, “sweat, grit and healthy body ideals signal modernity.” Either way, even if bodycon is back, the women who buy into it are more interested in looking good for themselves. If they look sexy, too, well that’s just a bonus.
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