Erdem’s first look said it all: A girl with a slightly trance-like expression on her pale face was treading her way along a red earth pathway, prettily dressed in a delicate Victoriana yoked dress of pale gray chiffon, strewn with embroidered pink and white flowers, which seemed to be coming apart at the shoulders. So far, so enchanting—but what the designer said about his inspiration will make you go back and take a long second look: “It was about prairie madness,” he explained backstage. “In 1862, Abraham Lincoln passed the Homestead Act, which gave single women and widows the right to their own plots of land in the West, as long as they stayed there for five years. So there were all these women coming from their homes in Europe, bringing their clothes and the remnants of their lives in Norway and Germany and places like that—and they started to suffer from agoraphobia and all kinds of psychological illnesses.” A quick Wikipedia check also shows that suicide was not uncommon among these lonely women. Could that black velvet ribbon at her neck, knotted and displaced to the side, start to look a little different in that light?
Erdem’s productions have taken on an almost cinematic quality recently, often hinting at the backstories of imaginary girls and women who have fallen on hard times or traveled far from their secure homes. Last season, he placed his show in a down-at-the-heels ’50s apartment set belonging to an heiress whose hopes in life were unraveling; before that, it was a tropical greenhouse for a tale about a Victorian woman botanist. Part of this, he always says, comes from spending his boyhood obsessively watching Merchant Ivory films. He’s a romantic who can only design once he “knows” the character he’s dressing.
The prairie girls, with their extraordinary wardrobes of ankle-length flounced dresses made of beautifully wrought lace, crochet, and embroidery fabrics, are his sequel. They arrived by railroad—pushed along on an actual train track in a former freight yard in the hinterland of King’s Cross station, with a few sticks of furniture to their names, and then proceeded to make their long, melancholy walk to a crackly soundtrack of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
Well, put it another way: Erdem may be brilliant at research and atmospherics, but in the real world he also knows the minds of the women he actually dresses. Next summer, they are basically going to be in prettiness heaven. Written by Sarah Mower for Vogue.com