When the expressive American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky makes her much-anticipated debut as Aida Saturday night in the Canadian Opera Company's first production of Verdi's magnum opus in 25 years, the audience will no doubt be transported to ancient Memphis, site of the doomed slave girl's affair with her young Egyptian warrior. But if the focus was swung from the stage to the audience, another era might be evoked: the Eisenhower-Kennedy period in America. This season, the austere minimalism driven by military coats and monochromatic palettes has an equally aggressive antidote - especially when it comes to formalwear - in the soignée Cold War grace represented by pinched waists, circle skirts, dainty cable-knit tops, ruffles, swing coats, framed handbags and, yes, opera gloves. Let's call the whole effect Leave It To Balenciaga.
"I think there will always be a place for dramatic, romantic designs," says Nina Garcia, Marie Claire fashion director, Project Runway judge and author of several style bibles. "Fashion is inherently theatrical, so although the pendulum has been swinging in a minimalist direction this season, let's face it, everyone loves a showstopper [dress]"
Decades ago, these looks weren't a novelty; they simply were what women wore. But if getting dressed up went through a decades-long rough patch - Too frivolous! Too time-consuming! - it has lately been winning over a new generation of women seeking a style that offers both structure and sensuality, clothes that are figure-flattering without being overtly flirtatious.
"We want to relate to real clothes and, when we think of history and what our mothers wore, it's relatable," says Jamie Thomas, trend director at Stylesight, a New York-based fashion-industry forecaster.
Garcia, whose latest book is Nina Garcia's Look Book: What to Wear for Every Occasion, is particularly impressed by the attention to detail at the ready-to-wear level and attributes the trend to an increased interest in craftsmanship. "Post-recession, I think designers are being challenged to offer clothes that really stand out in terms of quality and construction, both of which are marks of couture design," she says from New York. Their workmanship, however, doesn't mean that they're too precious to wear everyday, suggests Thomas, who speculates that people's renewed preference for tea parties or cocktails after work - rather than hitting nightclubs in the wee hours - has precipitated the return of day dresses and elegant separates. "I'm calling it day-to-night culture," she says, explaining that the outfit has to do double duty. "It's all about finding balance. If you wear a ruffled top or bow blouse, you pair it with a pencil skirt so you look sexy but demure."
Vintage aficionados will be quick to point out that they've lived and breathed this look long before it resurfaced as a trend. "When we first opened [in 2006] women were much more reticent," says Louise Cooper, owner of The Cat's Meow, a high-end vintage boutique in Toronto. "But now more and more are converting."
Cooper says that men often go "gaga" over anything late 1950s or early 1960s in style because it evokes the glamour of hourglass babes like Marilyn Monroe. But to ensure an updated statement that stops shy of a costume, Garcia recommends "perfectly tailored pieces and architectural accessories."
Alexander Neef, the Canadian Opera Company's general director, says patrons' approach to dressing up has cycled through more ups and downs than Wagner's Ring. He loves it when people treat an evening out as an event, but also feels they should dress in a way that's appropriate to them. "We're creating an occasion for the public and if they feel they need to respond by putting more care into what they wear, I think that's beautiful, but I don't want them to think it's an obligation," he says.
And increasingly, it isn't. Rachel Bilson and Scarlett Johansson are among the many young celebs who have sported the look of late, wearing, for example, off-the-runway dresses from Louis Vuitton, which espouses the style. Such timeless feminine fashion is especially enticing to today's cocktail-sipping, Mad Men-watching set, even if they just step into it for a single night.
"It has the ability ... to intrigue," Cooper says. "[And whether]it's the fit or the designer or the fabric or the little details, that's what fashion is all about."
Fashion direction by Tiyana Grulovic; Styling by Alon Freeman/Judy Inc.(www.judyincom); Makeup by David Goveia/Judy Inc.; Hair by Vanessa Jarman using TRESemmé Hair Care/Page One Management (pageonemanagement.ca).