The night before New Year’s Eve, my boyfriend’s parents drive us to Dublin airport. We make a stop en route to deposit my boyfriend’s brother in a pub, which happens to be opposite Martello Terrace, where the novelist James Joyce lived by the sea between 1887 and 1891. I peer through the car window, streaked with rain. It’s 8pm and pitch black; I can’t see anything except an inordinate number of swans. Seconds later, we’re back on the main road. A giant cartoon bow made from fairy lights catches my eye, wrapped around the edifice of a hotel, a picture-perfect present. It’s golden and glowing, camp and classy. It’s the most beautiful arrangement of Christmas lights I’ve ever seen. 

Alexander McQueen chiffon slip dress, £2,500, and silver metal Tudor Rose single earring, £2,190
Alexander McQueen chiffon slip dress, £2,500, and silver metal Tudor Rose single earring, £2,190 © Gillian Garcia

I take a picture, which joins a collection on my phone I’ve been nursing throughout the last year: bows and ribbons spotted in the wild, seemingly spilling over from their hyper-presence in catwalk and online trends. The previous day yielded another addition: being served a Negroni in a glass that once held a candle, with a chic little bow etched onto the side. I’m deeply in thrall to this arcane, transformative power of the ribbon. I think back to reading Ulysses last year and try to remember if its protagonist, Leopold Bloom, explicitly mentions bows or ribbons in the many passages describing his fetish for women’s underwear (the frilly kind in particular). I feel sure he would approve. RIP, Leopold Bloom, you would have loved the coquette trend. You would have loved the 2023 “bow-pocalypse”. You would have loved Sandy Liang and Simone Rocha SS24. I think better of posting the giant fairy-lights bow with said caption to social media, and instead opt for a grainy picture of the swans. It feels disappointingly demure, like I’m letting down not only myself but also Bloom and ribbon fetishists everywhere.

Stella McCartney cotton-mix dress with embroidery, £9,000, and recycled polyester Terra Eco heels, £750
Stella McCartney cotton-mix dress with embroidery, £9,000, and recycled polyester Terra Eco heels, £750 © Gillian Garcia

I wasn’t always a ribbon fetishist, or at least not openly. It’s very likely I’ve been infected – or dangerously enabled – by the “coquettification” of fashion that has seen the resurgence of stereotypically feminine tropes on the catwalk: Mary Janes, roses, frills, sheer, lace and, of course, ribbons. Sandy Liang has been dubbed the patron saint of this hyper-girly aesthetic, and her SS24 offering exaggerates it to the point of pastiche: oversized silk rose corsages and bows slung low around the waist; puff-sleeved smocks and Peter Pan collars in the palest-pink gingham; and – in what could be the pink bow and red rose emojis rendered 3D – skirts featuring a single rose bouquet secured by two pink bows. Ballet motifs are prominent too, with fingernails zealously ornamented with tiny satin bows.

Dolce & Gabbana silk chiffon dress, £2,850. Monse cotton jersey bralette (just seen), $850
Dolce & Gabbana silk chiffon dress, £2,850. Monse cotton jersey bralette (just seen), $850 © Gillian Garcia

Flowers and ribbons also abound at Simone Rocha, where bows and ruching bedeck wistful, diaphanous fabrics, their shapes resembling tiered, sickly sweet cakes. Japanese label Undercover takes the transparency motif to its high-drama extreme, presenting skirts as illuminated, bulb-like vessels, containing arrangements of pink roses. Lit from above, the scenes conjure the muted luminosity of a Dutch still‑life, or the enchanted rose from Beauty and the Beast, standing upright, romantic and doomed, in its bell jar. Even in the recent haute couture shows in Paris we see all this, with Chanel, Giambattista Valli and Rocha again for Jean Paul Gaultier revelling in the theme.

Oscar de la Renta silk organza gown, $9,690
Oscar de la Renta silk organza gown, $9,690 © Gillian Garcia

Yet for all of its gauze and gossamer, its play of revealing and concealing, this constellation of trends is not exactly sexy, or at least not straightforwardly so. It’s too self-consciously excessive, precious, girlishly indulgent, and frankly, camp – much like Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, which was a touchstone for Liang’s collection. Its failure to draw a clear, reassuring line between an affected jeune fille aesthetic and the self-possession of a grown-up adult sexiness has led to harsh critique and vociferous online debate. For some, this trend is toxically indicative of the “girl” monoculture heralded by films such as Barbie (2023), and connected to the ongoing setbacks to women’s rights around the world. As Isabel Cristo, associate editor at The Atlantic, puts it: “The fervid enthusiasm of grown women to participate in the veneration of girlhood raises a slightly unsettling question: what is it, exactly, that’s so uninviting about being an adult woman?”

Contemplating this excess of voile and roses, however, doesn’t put me in mind of a regressive notion of girlhood. Certainly not my own: I was a tomboy who, aged five, allegedly tore off my tutu and stormed out of a taster ballet class. It instead makes me think of the Canadian poet Lisa Robertson, whose oeuvre is deeply attuned to the philosophy and politics of ornamentation, and the relationship between gender and style. Her prose and poetry often luxuriates in the capacity of both literature and textile to help one adorn oneself, in a fantasy of becoming: “If I want to put on vintage silk lingerie at 6pm in summer then go to bed to read Nietzsche, that’s what revolt can look like.” In Robertson’s work, the ornamented self is never a way of earnestly expressing who one is, in essence of age or gender, but a gesture of artifice and rebellion, pleasure and pretence.

Simone Rocha SS24
Simone Rocha SS24
Sandy Liang SS24
Sandy Liang SS24

I want to be a voluptuary of silks and roses, a texture shared by Robertson’s sentences and Simone Rocha’s ensembles. Yet this is easier said than done. Not necessarily for reasons of affordability (although numerous articles have documented the recent “bow tax”, in which a humble ribbon added to an item of clothing will skyrocket its price) but more to do with nerve. 

My feeling is that this aesthetic – variously coquette-core, hyper-femininity, new-new romanticism – is less of a regression and more of a flamboyant riposte to the cultural and literal austerity of the 2010s – a decade typified by the style known as “normcore”. In 2023’s Bad Taste, Nathalie Olah says this was an era “defined by an incredibly dour and unremarkable character, centred around a fashion masquerading as anything but”. A similar logic appeared to be at work in that decade’s conflicted feminism. My 2010s were spent entirely in the university where I was trying very hard to be taken seriously. How I dressed was part of this. The message I took from feminist discourse was that dressing-up – being perceived to make an effort – meant dressing for the male gaze.

Blumarine silk dress, £1,360. Sophie Buhai silver and jade Dripping Stone earrings, $1,300
Blumarine silk dress, £1,360. Sophie Buhai silver and jade Dripping Stone earrings, $1,300 © Gillian Garcia

In many ways this was liberating – it freed me up to throw myself exclusively into reading and writing. But I also find it sad that I allowed myself to believe in an incompatibility between intellectual life on the one hand, and sartorial frivolity and pleasure on the other. It was a contradiction that flew under my radar. It’s not like I didn’t join the SlutWalk marches of 2011, pushing back against the sexist logic that dressing a certain way amounted to “asking for it”, or like I wasn’t spending all my time reading Lisa Robertson and Judith Butler, or enjoying films such as Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, populated with billowy sleeves and ostrich-feathered hats. I was on-board with the theory but too full of shame to put it in practice.

Dior stretch viscose bra, £780, and handmade cotton toile de Jouy Seasons skirt, £13,800. Sophie Buhai silver and jade Dripping Stone earrings, $1,300
Dior stretch viscose bra, £780, and handmade cotton toile de Jouy Seasons skirt, £13,800. Sophie Buhai silver and jade Dripping Stone earrings, $1,300 © Gillian Garcia

In between moments of tomboyish disavowal I occasionally allowed myself to admit that I loved this aesthetic, femme verging on camp – floaty, lacey, gauzy, fluffy, silky – but it was to be looked at, not attempted. I realise I found it hard to separate what I thought was feminism from what was a foil for self-loathing. My body disgusted me, and I mainly sought to hide it in austere, heavy fabrics and tent-like silhouettes. Like normcore, this sustained a tension between visibility and invisibility; I was not dressing for that kind of attention but for a different variety – to signal that I was serious, a good feminist.

I see something of this dynamic playing out in Rachel Cusk’s latest novel Second Place (2021). It concerns the middle-aged narrator, M, and her daughter Justine, in her early 20s, who is befriended by a visitor to their home, the hyper-feminine Brett. Because of Brett’s appearance, M initially places her as a few years older than her daughter, but later discovers that Brett is in her early 30s. Throughout the first half of the novel, M drops mildly judgemental hints about her daughter’s frumpy appearance and “sacklike garments”, which Justine ignores until Brett comments of one sack: “Did it come from Mother Hubbard’s cupboard?”

Versace silk dress with corset, £2,080
Versace silk dress with corset, £2,080 © Gillian Garcia

M reflects on the difference between Justine, Brett and herself: “I believed, I suppose, that Justine’s concealment of herself and her embracing the cult of plainness and comfort was the result of her shame and self-dislike, and the reason I believed it was because it was what I had always felt myself.” She adds that “I had grown up disgusted by my physical self, regarding femininity as a device – like the corset – to keep the repellent facts from view.” Soon enough, Justine is taking fashion, grooming and styling tips from Brett: in one scene Brett ties a “flattering” scarf around Justine’s hair (is Sandy Liang taking notes?). Cusk pins an ambivalence at the heart of this transformation: is Justine being coached into an oppressive gender stereotype or being encouraged to take pleasure in the performance of appearing?

I see this as animating something of a generational shift from the 2010s to the 2020s. It’s not difficult to see why the years of lockdown might have coaxed a generation of Justines – inclined towards practicality, utility and comfort – into becoming coquettish Bretts, who found the overalls and dungarees they coveted pre-pandemic newly suffocating. 

Coperni silver metal zip and ruffle dress, €2,590
Coperni silver metal zip and ruffle dress, €2,590 © Gillian Garcia

I also read Brett’s embrace of girlishness as not in spite of her age but because of it; no longer in her 20s, she’s mentally free from the trap that decade can so often feel like, free from the judgement and scrutiny it entails. I didn’t have a literal Brett, but something about losing the last years of my 20s to lockdown had a Brett-like effect on me. What began as a simple feeling of relief – being removed from the social gaze during lockdown – became actively pleasurable, as I remembered being a child stuck at home with a dressing-up box. I’d forgotten along the way that dressing is always dressing-up.

I emerged from lockdown girlishly, enjoying it for the first time. For the launch of my most recent book, I asked a friend, the designer Sarah McCormack, to make me a dress from some red bamboo silk she had left over from another commission. The brief we decided on was something like: Red Riding Hood running through the forest, her dress has been ripped by thorns and branches, and is barely held together by spider threads. It’s important to be serious about the details. And as Hazel Brown, the heroine of Lisa Robertson’s novel The Baudelaire Fractal concludes: “Girlhood itself is a baroque tradition.” 

Daisy Lafarge’s latest book, Lovebug, is published by Peninsula at £10.99

Model, Emmi Freeman at Women Management NY. Casting, Affa Osman at CLM. Hair, Tiago Goya at Home. Make-up, Holly Silius at R3 using Armani Beauty Lip Power lipstick in 400, $45, and Retrouvé. Stylist’s assistant, Rachel Pollen

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