Fashion's turnover of trends is not only insatiable, but also, more  often than not, unwearable for the average woman. Whether we’re talking thigh-grazing hemlines or obliques-revealing cut-outs, what looks good on the catwalk can
appear indecent or frumpy on the sidewalk. So hallelujah for our current obsession with the off-the-shoulder look. It’s a trend that oozes subtle sexiness and makes the most of the part of the body every woman can feel good about.

Isa Arfen Lookbook
Isa Arfen Lookbook
Image: Gallo Images / Getty Images / Antonia de Moraes Barros / Filho / Daniel Sims and Isa Arfen

Who doesn’t love their collarbones, right? It’s no wonder the world is shoulder-flash crazy now. It started in the resort 2016 collections and picked up pace at the spring/summer 2016 shows. Stella McCartney’s crisp white tops curved confidently to attention around the upper arms. Jonathan Anderson at Loewe offered up loose and wide knitwear, tipped at the shoulder. Clare Waight Keller at Chloé went wild with lace and chiffon tops, denim dresses, and  carnival jumpers that all made the most of the décolletage. Temperley London paired spaghetti straps with cropped ruffles that floated below the shoulder and
above the waistline.

Peter Pilotto tiered Chantilly lace, macramé, and striped cotton into an array of
shoulder-exposing, body-defining dresses. And at Proenza Schouler, monochrome jacquard and crêpe creations were either cut away in circles around the shoulders, or held up by ribbons. Backstage, designers Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough said of their inspiration: “We were looking at bananas — things that peel away from the body.”

The off-the-shoulder look has been a favourite for longer than you might think. Throughout the 19th century, it was the fashion to wear wide-necked evening
gowns that drew attention to one’s bust. The silhouette sloped the shoulders and nipped the waist with a bodice, while bell-shaped skirts created volume. A century later, ’50s Hollywood style was characterised by the likes of Natalie Wood, Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, and Lucille Ball, who all favoured glamorous, clavicle-braving outfits. For Brigitte Bardot it was such a signature that her name now signifies the sailor-style off-the-shoulder top flooding high street stores such as H&M and Zara.

It’s remained a perennial fashion favourite ever since, from Marilyn Monroe as hourglass seductress Rose in film noir thriller Niagara, to Jennifer Beals working up a sweat in flimsy, wide-necked jerseys as welder-turned-dancer Alex in Flashdance, via Olivia Newton John’s good girl Sandy in Greece in drop-dead sassy sweetheart necklines.

What makes the 2016 incarnation of the trend feel invigorating and empowering is that, unlike in recent decades, when off-the-shoulder tops were most often about defining the waist and hugging the body, today we’re taking a softer, more demure approach.

The aim is to give the impression that garments are floating around the body, about to cascade to the floor. Not only is this alluring, it’s also ultimately flattering. The carnal connotations are ever present, but subliminal, leaving it up to the individual as to how risqué she chooses to be. The look reframes the body too. These seemingly precarious garments change the way you carry yourself, and demand that you walk and stand tall. No slouching, or you’ll be flashing more than you intended, but that’s very much part of their elegant charm.

“There’s an easy-going sensuality to the off-the-shoulder trend this season,” says Sabrina Henry, stylist and fashion curator at  London’s Southbank Centre. “It’s more casual and less constrained and also nods to 1970s bohemia — that sense of freedom. We’re moving away from the puritanical minimalism of past seasons and embracing femininity.” To work the look in a relevant way, she recommends pairing an off-the-shoulder top with high-waisted palazzo pants or silky combat trousers, as seen at Balenciaga.

Indeed, the joy of this trend is that it can speak to you in many ways, whether you prefer more architectural pieces, such as Ellery’s waterfall-sleeved tops; bandaged and sporty styles, courtesy of Barbara Casasola; or as a way to update your little black dress, as exemplified by Christopher Kane’s wave-hemmed looks. Channel burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee in nearly naked, louche lace frippery from Givenchy. Join the Balmain army in nude, leather-laced ruffles. Embrace your uptown flamenco dancer in one of Roberto Cavalli’s ruffled chiffon power dresses.

Or keep it simple in a Caroline Constas billowy gingham poplin top. You can
dress it up or down, layer roll necks or T-shirts underneath to keep flesh to a minimum, or appear to be in a perpetual state of undress. Anything goes.

Thula Sindi’s bestseller this season, a midnight blooms cocktail dress, frames the female form in all the right places. “It is simply a knockout of a dress,” the Johannesburg-based designer says. His hyperfeminine off-the-shoulder pieces have also found popularity, thanks to social media. “Instagram, baby! There’s nothing like looking sultry as your dress or top seems to be held up by a prayer.” It’s true this trend was born for social media. Adopt a winning smie, glance over one’s conveniently uncovered shoulder in a pseudo-coy pose, and then snap, post, and like.

For Serafina Sama of Isa Arfen, off the shoulder is part of her brand’s DNA. The Italian-born, London-based designer studied at Central Saint Martins and worked for Chloé, Louis Vuitton, Acne, and Charlotte Olympia before establishing Isa Arfen (an anagram of her name) in 2011. Since then she’s
been hailed for her retro-inspired, playful shapes and decadent fabrications.

“I have included off-the-shoulder styles since my very first season,” Sama says. “What I find appealing is the sense of undone femininity. Baring a shoulder allows you to feel sexy, but still sophisticated and relaxed. It is more suggestive than revealing.” For her, trends are immaterial because true style stays. “The search for the next erogenous zone has been moving so fast in the past couple of years that there was nothing left to bare. So I think it’s refreshing to start covering up again — except for an exposed shoulder.”

Image: Gallo Images / Getty Images / Antonia de Moraes Barros / Filho / Daniel Sims and Isa Arfen

Her shoulder-baring icons and influences are drawn from all eras and continents and are expressed in her unique and quirky womenswear. “I am very inspired by Seydou Keita’s work. Many of the gorgeous women featured in his portraits taken in Mali during the 1950s and early 1960s wore their dresses pulled off one or both shoulders,” she enthuses of this legendary photographer’s archive. “Then there is Yves Saint Laurent’s (YSL’s) haute peasant look from the late 1960s and early 1970s — the epitome of decadence, glamour, and bare shoulders.” The image of YSL muse Loulou de la Falaise in an opulent, blood red, off-the-shoulder dress (complete with feathered wings) at her infamous 1978 Angels and Demons costume ball at Le Palace in Paris is a constant on Sama’s moodboard.

For the past three seasons, Sama has emphasised the trend more than ever. Resort 2016 imagined fabulous ladies going on holiday to the Caribbean, where they have their shoulders sun-kissed, while wearing colour-blocked frocks and tops heaped with drop-puff sleeves and va-va-voom peplums. “I wanted
to offer a feel-good collection of exaggerated pieces that would brighten up a woman’s day.”

For spring/summer 2016 shoulders come out again, but this time with asymmetrical, twisted necklines, and ruffles galore in shades of black, white,
red, khaki, and fuchsia. The look is easy and undone, especially when paired with her take on Capri pants. “I personally like to wear these pieces with a pair of vintage Levi’s jeans and Converse, or highwaist, cropped shantung trousers and heels for evening,”

Sama muses. “But it’s always exciting to see how other women style them with pieces from their own wardrobe. I loved seeing Alexa Chung in our off-the-shoulder monochrome tops, and Poppy Delevingne looked fantastic in the minidress version.”

With such stellar celebrity endorsement of the off-the-shoulder look going on right now (everyone from Kerry Washington to the Kardashians have been at it),
it seems this trend isn’t going to be shrugged off any time soon.

This article was originally published by the Edit.
Spring/Summer 2016

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