The Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen had a knack for capturing the personality of fabrics. She is particularly good on the “sentient” power of silk. The best description comes in her fetishistic story “Making Arrangements”, in which abandoned husband Hewson Blair wreaks revenge on Margery, the errant wife who’s left him for another man — by destroying all her evening dresses.
He doesn’t set out with massacre in mind. Initially, he plans to pack up the contents of her wardrobe, as per her instruction, and ship it to the foreign address she has provided. But it’s the silk dress that taunts him: “a creamy, slithery thing with a metallic brilliance that slipped down into his hands with a horrible wanton willingness.” Half an hour later, he is brushing tell-tale wisps of silver thread from his sleeves as he loads Margery’s trunk with shredded silk strips that “quivered under his touch”. The lascivious quality of silk — once titillating, when clothing Margery’s limbs — has turned toxic.
The allure of silk has got designers in a spin this season. This quicksilver fabric washed across the autumn/winter 2017 collections like a river, pooling in folds and dripping over lithe forms with sultry intensity at Victoria Beckham, Etro, Valentino and Roksanda. It was the fulcrum of the Sies Marjan collection, too, though designer Sander Lak has long been in its thrall — partly because silk can take the dye from the acidic, retina-searing colours he favours; partly because he has always gravitated towards comfortable fabrics. “I think about ease a lot with my collections,” he emails from New York, explaining that Sies Marjan sources silk almost exclusively from Italian fabric mills. “I never like wearing stiff or heavy garments myself, so why propose that to others? I’m a magpie, and I love it when I wear something that I want to touch all the time and has a certain shine to it.”
Catherine Johnson, founder of Three Graces London, agrees — so much so that she’s launching an eveningwear collection of silks early next year, expanding the remit of the brand she founded as a lingerie and sleepwear specialist. “I feel most comfortable wearing silk in a relaxed way,” she says. “Decontracte, as the French would say, which sounds as seductive as it looks!” The eveningwear will be distinguished from slippery, sleep-intended pieces by its quality. “The designs are more generous and the fabrics even more luxurious,” she says.
20 Best Black-Tie Dresses
Back to the runways: silk wasn’t always come-to-bed suggestive. At Louis Vuitton, for instance, delicate bias-cut slip dresses in luminous blue and acid yellow turned tough thanks to streetwise styling. Paired with leggings, thick-soled cowboy boots and supple black leather coats, slips took on an urban edge. At Loewe, washed silk was patchworked with sequined squares featuring a cross-hatched print, creating a mismatch that was equal parts tough and tantalising. Meanwhile at Tibi, silk’s motives were ambiguous: never explicitly coquettish but never entirely straight-up.
According to Amy Smilovic, Tibi’s creative director, that’s because “silk can be moulded to serve any time of day or function”. She has at least 15 silk dresses in her wardrobe for that very reason. “What I love is that you don’t have to treat silk as ‘precious’,” she says. “Whenever I pack to go anywhere, silk dresses, especially slips, are crushed in the suitcase because you can wear them with a blazer and sneakers, or layered under a big sweater, or dressed up with heels, or with flat sandals on the beach. They’re infinitely appropriate.” Her new-season take is to style a silk dress over trousers, though she counsels: “Sometimes with a dress layered over silk pants it can feel a little overwhelming and silly, so I’d hike it up at one side so it’s not too symmetrical.”
Rachael Proud, the spirited young creative director at Matchesfashion.com’s in-house line Raey and one of the best-dressed girls in London (she once headed up the design studio at Christopher Kane), is another proponent of the non-precious approach: “I wear my split-front silk maxi skirt with one of my brother’s knackered old Inspiral Carpets T-shirts… not sure if he knows I’ve nicked that.” She has multiple Raey silk V-neck slip dresses, which she wears with leggings, pool slides and hoodies. Consider hemlines, too, which largely creep to midi-length. “I love a godet hem,” says Proud. “There’s something very slick about the back of a dress being longer than the front, with just the right amount of ankle showing.”
10 Best Silk Pieces
Colours are crucial when it comes to silk. To return, briefly, to Bowen, who makes as good a case as any novelist for a well-stocked wardrobe: “Without these dresses the inner Margery, unfostered, would never have become perceptible to the world. She would have been like a page of music written never to be played. All her delightfulness to her friends had been in this expansion of herself into forms and colours.” It’s best to adopt a radical approach. “Sometimes I think people don’t realise that if you go with the most extreme colours, they oddly become the most wearable, and the ones you continue to reach for,” says Smilovic. “It’s when the colours fall into the safe range that they become boring.” She’s right. A couple of months ago, on a whim, I picked up a silk crêpe de chine Tibi dress with an Edwardian-ish ruffled neck in a colour I’ve never worn before: rich, warm, yolk yellow. Guess what? I’ve barely taken it off — the saturated sunshine silk seems to go with everything. Good thing I don’t have a jealous ex-husband.
Browse the season’s best silk catwalk looks below.