Coach 1941

How witches continue to influence the runway

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Aug 22, 2018, 1:00 PM EDT

The season of the witch in fashion is not singular; designers have returned to this particular well — or in this case, cauldron — time and time again for inspiration. Over the last decade, numerous fashion houses including Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Givenchy and Alexander McQueen have all drawn on elements of the mystic in their collections. But what makes witches so sartorially appealing?

Fashion is not alone in the way it utilizes the magically gifted as an influence. Witches continue to appear in film and on television in a variety of guises. The adaptability and flexibility of this kind of story is part of the big draw. It can be allegorical in a variety of forms, whether in a puritanical period setting, as a traditional fairy tale, or as part of a coming-of-age story. Genre can vary too — from rom-com, fantasy, horror, drama, and teen. A witch isn’t just an old crone or a beautiful temptress; a flowing cape is not the only outerwear option. It would get stale rather quickly if there was a specific witch dress code to adhere to.

The classic conical hat might not work outside of The Wizard of Oz or Halloween on mere mortals, but this didn’t stop designer Luella featuring one in her fall 2008 collection. Pairing it with orange tights only makes this ensemble look more like a costume if that was possible. But there are ways of wearing a wide-brimmed witch-adjacent hat that won’t make it look like you’re channeling the Wicked Witch of the West.

Saint Laurent
In October 2012, Hedi Slimane made his Saint Laurent womenswear debut, which not only looked to the YSL archive for inspiration but turned to the ‘70s styling of music icon — and witch — Stevie Nicks and occultist Marjorie Cameron. It is dripping in retro witch-meets-rock star glam. And who wouldn’t want to dress like that? Witches and musicians are inherently cool; the two combined is instantly desirable.  

Wish fulfillment is intrinsic to fashion, and the garments that feature on the runway or in the pages of Vogue are not affordable to most. Flicking through these magazines is the closest I will ever come to wearing something this expensive. Sure, there will be alternatives at a much cheaper price point, but the idea of wearing an Alexander McQueen or Givenchy frock is a fantasy fit for a royal wedding.

The appeal of witches in fashion and entertainment is also linked to wish fulfillment; magic gives a sense of power and control in a chaotic world. It's a feminist fantasy that can be achieved whether wearing a pretty flowing dress or a leather version, which gives off a Hocus Pocus aesthetic.

Givenchy did a version of these looks a year apart; the plunging gown is from the spring 2014 collection, while the latter is from spring 2015. Chokers were making their big comeback at this time — the ideal accessory for anyone wanting to channel Fairuza Balk as Nancy in The Craft.

Everything old is new again in both fashion and pop culture; at the moment, the ‘90s is having its comeback in the clothes we are wearing and the projects that are getting made. Witches have never really gone away, but the ‘90s was their time to shine. This decade kicked off with The Witches in 1990, and Charmed and Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer led the magically gifted into the new millennium.

Designers and filmmakers alike are turning to ‘90s nostalgia. The Dior spring 2018 ready-to-wear show features a number of looks that wouldn’t look out of place on Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

The stripes, polka dots, hats and pleated skirts could have come from either the wardrobe of the Melissa Joan Hart version or the forthcoming Netflix series starring Kiernan Shipka. If only we all had the ability to change our outfit with the flick of a finger.

Tension exists in the witch representation, both historically and in fiction. Women are accused of witchcraft because they don’t conform; a girl becomes a woman and suddenly everything has changed. A push/pull between good and evil is often little more than the way innocence and sexuality are perceived.

This same tension exists in the collections that have a witch influence, whether in the Gothic Victorian high necklines and frills or plunging chest-baring frocks and revealing fabrics. One represents the seductive danger, the other suggests vulnerability.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other; sheer, lace, and ruffles all featured in the witchy looks at the Rodarte spring 2018 show.

Summer solstice provides the perfect occasion to embrace mother nature and all she has to offer. There is no need to pack away your coven couture during the hotter months until the leaves start to turn.

Alexander McQueen
Plunging gold and floral embellished gowns in the McQueen fall 2016 collection reveal there are bewitching alternatives to black. Whether wearing chiffon or leather, there is room in the witch narrative for both soft and edgy textures.  

Romance also plays a pivotal role in the witch aesthetic on the runway, as the Dior spring 2017 collection demonstrates. This was Mario Grazia Chiuri’s debut for the fashion house — the first woman to hold the title of creative director at Christian Dior.

The frocks are infused with whimsy and femininity, perfect for twirling or casting spells in. Mythic winged creatures, bugs, and bats, five-pointed stars adoring the frocks and chokers; these images look like they have come from a spell book.

Nature is symbolically linked to those with the gift whether using items from the ground or looking to the sky. Star imagery is an on-point — pun intended — nod to this theme, as was the case at the Preen by Thornton Bregazzi spring 2017 show.

A pentagram features on a number of different looks; one resembles a polo shirt, another weaves flowers through the image. “We grew up with witches,” explained designer Thea Bregazzi who hails from the Isle of Man, an island off the northern coast of England and hotbed of witchcraft history.

Personal history was a big factor in Alexander McQueen’s 2007 fall collection that was infused with anger and challenged audiences. McQueen’s mother had traced their family tree, discovering that distant relative Elizabeth Howe was found guilty and executed at the Salem witch trials of 1692.

Alexander McQueen
McQueen used this as a jumping off point to show how the horror of humanity and beauty of nature are intrinsically linked. A red pentagram drawn on the runway in red with an inverted pyramid over it, coupled with moon and star headpieces were some of the more overt nods to witchcraft in this presentation.

Salem was far from the first place that experienced witch hysteria, but it is the starting timeframe for many including the fall 2013 Cushnie et Ochs collection, which used this period for inspiration.

Cushnie et Ochs

Carly Cushnie noted, “The witch is the ultimate bad girl. You want to be her.” Of course, these garments don’t look like something a puritan would wear in 1692. They are a lot sexier than that. But that is the fun of fashion; it doesn’t have to be a literal interpretation.


Or the message can be an obvious one. Getting labeled a witch used to mean death. Now you can wear it across your shirt, as was the case at the Ashish show last September. Disco parties are for witches too.

Setting the mood at the Coach 1941 fall 2018 presentation earlier this year, Stuart Vevers created a super creepy Blair Witch-esque setting complete with TV screens (no tears and snot videos here) infusing American Gothic with Americana-inspired leather and fringe.

Coach 1941
Salem is not the only place or historical event that can be used as a way to embrace the history of witchcraft in the US through fashion. 

Contradictions are a foundation of the traditional witch story. Seduction versus vulnerability, innocence transformed into something dangerous — the perceived corruption of youth. Witches in pop culture are often the old hag or glamorous evil queen, an either/or of two stages of a woman’s life. Motivations for these characters are often an attempt to stay young and beautiful via magic. On the runway, the scope for interpreting an influence is much wider, as it is often an unspoken narrative. Of course, glamour is not in short supply during Fashion Week.

This was definitely the case at the Alberta Ferretti show, which took place in Venice as part of Milan Fashion Week in February 2017. Beautiful chiffon frocks, velvet embroidered capes and masks as worn by supermodel sister Bella and Gigi Hadid give the impression they are off to a fancy ball. Sisters are common in witch narratives, here it looks like the Hadids are off to cause havoc at a decadent event with love spells and trickery.

Alberta Ferretti
There is also a day-to-night ensemble that is part-witch, part-Twin Peaks floor pattern from the Black Lodge. What really sets this ensemble off is the contemporary take on the witch-adjacent hat — as noted earlier, there are ways to do this by keeping the wide-brim and losing the conical point.

Sticking with this hat theme at the Christian Dior fall 2017 Couture show, the fashion house celebrated 70 years with a selection of garments that look like a witch-spy hybrid, coupled with Claire (Caitriona Balfe) from Outlander. Witch spies in the 1940s sound like a great idea for a TV show — Hollywood, call me!

Christian Dior
These flowing frocks combine femininity with menswear-inspired tailoring; it is grounded in reality with fantastical touches. The witch narrative in pop culture often features both of these aspects.

It is also reminiscent of a look from Vivienne Westwood’s fall 1993 collection — a runway show famous for Naomi Campbell falling in stacked platforms. Again there is a menswear aesthetic, but the cape and nipped in waist of the jacket are super feminine, conjuring an image of an all-girls boarding school in the 1940s or 1950s for the magically gifted. If Hogwarts and St. Trinian’s had a crossover event it might look like this.

Vivienne Westwood
Ten years prior, Westwood did her last official collaboration with Malcolm McLaren; it was entitled “Witches.” This was not Salem-inspired. Instead, it was influenced by the “magical esoteric sign language” of Keith Haring. A graphic heavy collection, but one of the coats is more in line with what you would imagine when you hear the word “witches,” a belted raincoat with bat wings.

Pop culture and fashion riff off each other — something that can also be viewed in how science-fiction impacts the runway —  so there is a correlation between the ‘90s comeback on screen and the catwalk. But this trend isn’t just because a certain decade is cool again. Instead, witches continue to be sartorially beguiling because they are much more than a black cape and pointed hat. Thankfully, this is one spell that is going to be hard to break.  

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