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Breastplate but make it fashion: How Warrior Women influence the runway

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Sep 17, 2020, 6:00 PM EDT

Over the years, garments designed for military personnel have trickled down into civilian wardrobes. From the practical (and stylish) bomber jacket to the humble cardigan, the line between original purpose and fashion has blurred. The runway is awash with clothing rooted in combat, which are now sartorial staples. Tailored capes and trench coats are ideal outerwear, whereas the aforementioned knitted cardigans are ideal for keeping warm.

Breastplates made from leather and metal are not only reserved for the likes of Wonder Woman or Brienne of Tarth, and you don't have to be a medieval knight to embrace chainmail couture. While these protective items might not be as practical or comfortable as other battlefield clothing options, this hasn't stopped designers from finding inspiration from warrior women of the past — or even revered fictional fighters.

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Clothing that doubles as armor doesn't have to be a literal interpretation. Fatigues and camouflage are far from the only battle-ready attire. In Lovecraft Country, Leti's (Jurnee Smollett) 1950s frocks and cropped pants are part of her overall defense against a cruel and hostile world. However, sometimes fashion spells out exactly what it means with no need for metaphor or subtext. The fighting garments in Warrior Nun have been crafted with combat in mind and take a Joan of Arc approach to the overall aesthetic — a figure who continues to resonate in the fashion world.

Paco Rabanne's Fall 2020 ready-to-wear collection is a marriage of chainmail face coverings (proving how on point Warrior Nun's Sister Beatrice is) with the revered 15th-century adolescent religious icon. Elegant and edgy, these gowns are beautiful while suggesting hardwearing materials are a must-have. The shoe choice styling underscores the utilitarian aspect that runs throughout the warrior woman's influence — this is no place for stiletto heels or delicate sandals.

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The relationship between Catholicism and high-end fashion took center stage at the 2018 Met Gala. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination was a theme that included wide-ranging interpretations, with Zendaya delivering one of the most memorable looks of the night. Doubling as an audition for a Joan of Arc biopic, the actress wore a jaw-dropping Atelier Versace chainmail creation.

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Working with stylist Law Roach, Zendaya never fails to disappoint on the red carpet, whether it's fashion's biggest night of the year or an award season appearance. In January, she attended the Critics' Choice Awards in a hot pink Tom Ford ensemble that had previously set tongues wagging when it debuted at New York Fashion Week three months earlier. Zendaya's Marvel co-star Gwyneth Paltrow also wore the hot pink $15,000 item on the Harper's Bazaar February issue.

The lacquered chrome acrylic anatomical breastplate — also available in black — combines a dialed-up Ex Machina visual with a dash of legendary warrior woman Boudica. Unlike other military clothing that is now part of an everyday wardrobe, you are not gonna throw this backless top on to watch TV or pop out for a walk. This is high fashion at its most fun, and the out-there nature of this Tom Ford piece is tempered by the flowy feminine energy of the matching maxi skirt (also available in basketball shorts).

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The last four years have seen an uptick in breastplates and chainmail interpretations from designers, which could be viewed as a response to the anxiety of the age we're living in. Reclaiming power is a more positive way to read this trend cycle, which includes the fall 2016 Louis Vuitton's deconstructed layered leather bodice-adjacent styles.

Taking inspiration from great adventures, creative director Nicolas Ghesquière referenced a video game action legend. "We had an idea of this trip, of a woman who could be a digital heroine, like Tomb Raider, when she discovers an archaeological site." Another case of combat boots to emphasize the overall message of the collection.

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Also in Paris Fashion Week that same year, Loewe's ready-to-wear lineup features sculpted metal and leather garments that combine frivolity with a warrior influence.

Of course, breastplates as fashion rather than function have existed long before the last four years. In 1969, Yves Saint Laurent debuted a beautiful and provocative gold breastplate that would not pass the Instagram nipple check.

Handcrafted protective garments from ancient Greece through to the medieval era have played a huge role across the vast costume design landscape, including recent warrior women staples like the Game of Thrones metal and leatherwork and the look of Themyscira in Patty Jenkins' 2017 version of Wonder Woman. Costume designer Lindy Hemming turned to London-based leather designers Whitaker Malem for Diana's instantly iconic metallic bodice, as well as her fellow Amazonians.

Dubbed "The Wonder Woman Effect" by the New York Times in August 2017, the pair have also crafted pieces for Aquaman, The Dark Knight, and Idris Elba's slick Hobbs & Shaw suit. A marriage of costume and fashion with specialist techniques, their work has also appeared in Vogue Italia.

The intersection of historical garments and pop culture is no more apparent than in fantasy movies and television. The rules that constrain designers working on a period-set story wanting to depict an era with accuracy don't restrict historical fantasy in the same way. Fashion designers have even less set guidelines to follow and can incorporate materials, techniques, and influences into their work from across a vast spectrum.

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Boundaries are there to be pushed, and Alexander McQueen drew on everything from Alien to his witch ancestors. McQueen's Spring '99 ready-to-wear show is best remembered for the balletic robot painted dress display, but the No. 13 London Fashion Week event featured other stunning sartorial moments, including Paralympic athlete and now actress Aimee Mullins wearing a sculpted leather cuirass with a ruffled skirt — again mixing soft with hard materials — and cherry wood prosthetic legs.

A cuirass is a "piece of armor covering the body from neck to waist," which McQueen featured in other collections, including a delicate hand-blown glass stunner from the Voss lineup.

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McQueen drew on the warrior spirit and silhouette across the years that incorporated leather molding, traditional suit-of-armor components, and sculpting that were all on display as part of the definitive Savage Beauty exhibit at the Met Costume Institute and London's V&A museum.

Resembling a corset, the restrictive nature of a breastplate does draw comparisons to the Victorian era, which also saw the rise in the "cuirass bodice." Hitting the mainstream in the 1870s, "the bodice extends into a point below the waistline in front and back." Military and menswear dictating the clothing of women is nothing new, but the women who fought in these garments like Joan of Arc and Boudica should not be forgotten. Real and fictional warrior women continue to inspire the runway, and battle-ready fashion is a sartorial call to arms.

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