Peplums Return To Release Our Flair: It’s not often that a bona-fide technical fashion term makes it big these days. Parisian based terminology got bazooka’d about the time I finally mastered what a toile was. Killer This, Must-Have That – the new lingo was all very visceral and make-it-up-as-you-go-along-y.
But the peplum is about to have a very big year, even though many of the fashion breathren don’t yet know what a peplum is. This ignorance is not surprising: the first thing that pops up when you Google peplum is a website devoted to films featuring Burt Lancaster and Charlton Heston in togas. “The most under-rated genre in the history of cinema” is how one blogger contentiously describes peplum movies, which also go by the soubriquet of sword-and-sandal movies. Further Googling confirms that both meanings derive from the Greek for tunic.
But enough with the definitions… except to say that if we’re talking peplum movies in the true fashion sense, then the crowning glory would have to be The Women – the 1939 version, with costumes by the flamboyant Adrian, not the limp 2008 one. The original Women said things like “I never got a sou out of anybody except my first husband, Mr Strauss. Oh he said the most touching thing in his will… He said ‘To my beloved wife Flora, I leave all my estate… To be administered by executors because she is an A-1 schlemiel.’” Now that’s the kind of thing a woman in a peplum should say.
Peplums were the last hoorah of the glamorous 30s. By 1941 and the onset of fabric rationing it was all over for the peplum, although not in France, where flouting attempts to reign in extravagance was regarded as an act of defiance against the Nazis. Or so the French said, and let’s leave it there, because a far more interesting facet of this story is that peplums nearly always seem to flourish at that interface in history between excess and catastrophe.
They were all the rage before the Second World War, revived in the rubble of post-war by Christian Dior with his peerless Bar jacket (“Have you heard about the New Look?” wrote Nancy Mitford in one of her frequent fashion-obsessed asides. “You pad your hips and squeeze your wait… it creates a class feeling in a way no sables could”) and were huge just before the crash of 1988. Judy McCoy, wife of Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s satire on slime-bag politicos and greedy bankers (so absolutely no resonance with now) was very keen on peplums, as were all those real life social x-rays such as Ivana and Blaine Trump and Nan Kempner. Perhaps in turbulent times we reach for hourglass images of womankind.
They’re going to be everywhere in 2012. American Vogue devotes six pages in the January issue to them, with the injunction “Dare to Flare”. But thanks to the Jil Sander collection of peplums that looked as though they’d been inflated with a pump, they were already the sleeper hit of 2011, although not all looked as modern as the Sander one.
There is something exuberant about the right peplum (the wrong kind just brings to mind Pat Butcher in a saloon bar). In skilled hands the right peplum can accentuate boyish hips, create the illusion of a hand-span waists and mask less-than-flat tummies, making it very much the go-to post-Christmas-gym-not-quite-kicked-in-yet item. Shortly there will plenty to choose from. Thakoon, Jason Wu, Acne, Dries van Noten, Peter Pilotto and Osman are just some of the designers who’ve taken it up. Preen added them to the waistbands of trousers. Dior, under the current helm of designer Bill Gaytten, has revived the 1947 Bar jacket again. At Celine, Phoebe Philo designed a large detachable peplum belt, which, brilliantly, works over skirts, trousers and even dresses and, not so brilliantly, costs £750. It will probably get copied though – just as all the more straightforward peplums have been. Zara has an especially chic looking black peplum skirt for £49.99 (on their website they’re calling it, prosaically, Skirt with Frill).
It’s not just any old frill. Being puffy, it has volume. This is key. Some peplums are just soggy frills drooping from waists. The Duchess of Cambridge’s cream Reiss engagement dress is, if I may be so bold, a prime exemplar of the floppier peplum.
Far more chic are the structured and padded ones. It may sound strange and a bit 1789 (not a good year for royals) to be adding heft and horse-hair to your hips. But if you keep everything else simple, the effect will be architectural and sleek. Wear a peplumed jacket or top with slim, tapered trousers and it can even look futuristically sporty.