September 10, 2021 - 11:30am

If you spent all your time online right now, you’d be forgiven for thinking fashion had arrived somewhere deeply strange. Every third girl on TikTok wears a ‘sub choker’ to make videos about doing laundry, while social media ads for an absurdly high-cut bodysuit recently caused a mixture of sniggering and nausea among the middle-aged women of my acquaintance.

Now, courtesy of yet more unsightly social media adverts, we can learn that the forward-thinking individualist should choose to empower themselves with slave shackles and accessories reminiscent of equestrian bridles.

German jewellery brand MYL’s ‘Rebellare’ collection offers these heavily fetish-themed treasures along with platitudes about feminism, self-expression and the terrible scourge of conservatism. The ‘Geschirrtasche’, for example, ‘an empowering fashion item’, is essentially a BDSM chest harness with a large wallet attached. The ‘Bold, Dominating, Empowering’ ‘Halskrause 1’, meanwhile, comprises a stainless steel neck choker connected by long rein-like chains to a bit designed to be worn in the mouth.

In response to such a barrage of poor taste, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the offline world, women’s clothing has taken a strikingly traditional turn. M&S, for example, abounds with high-necked, long-sleeved, mid-calf florals:

M&S, 09/09/21, photo credit: Mary Harrington

Of course it’s absurd in a sense to measure Berlin clubwear on the same yardstick as clothing marketed at bourgeois Englishwomen. But I can’t remember a time in my adult life when trends for this latter group turned quite so conservative.

Doubtless Britain’s Muslim community is helping to drive demand; but it’s not just Muslim women who are gratefully embracing ‘modest activewear’ as a more appealing workout option than tiny crop tops and skin-tight booty shorts.

What strikes me about the rhetoric of radical self-love, stereotype-smashing and fetishwear as empowerment is how exhausted it feels as a trend — and how self-defeating. Who has the energy for standing out from the crowd, when that means dangling annoying bits of metal off your lower lip all day, impeding your ability to talk or eat?

In contrast, the ultra-trad turn in high-street womenswear feels like a mutiny against the long-unchallenged belief that clothing is a vector for self-expression — an idea that usually precedes someone trying to sell you something uncomfortable and expensive.

Old-fashioned styles like the one pictured below, currently in stock in Sainsbury’s, imply the reverse. That is, it can be possible, even desirable, to find blessed relief in dressing not for oneself but for others, in clothing that makes a selling-point of self-effacement.

Sainsbury’s 06/09/21, photo credit Harrington

And it’s not even clear that this is the option most likely to efface your self. After all, how much attention will anyone pay to what you’re saying, when they’re boggling at the fact you’re wearing a bridle and reins?

My hunch is that fashion is having a ‘your nan was right all along’ moment, as growing numbers of women twig that the less people stare at what we’re wearing, the more likely they are to listen to what we have to say. In other words, the mums of Middle England have a better handle than the club kids of Berlin on what ‘empowerment’ actually looks like.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.