Ruffles Are Rigid

valentino dress Ruffles Are RigidThe other day, Stephanie Kimssy, 24, who does marketing for Kenneth Cole, was shopping at the Topshop in Soho, wearing a sleeveless, ruffled tan shirt. “I really like how flirty it is,” Ms. Kimssy said. Nygia Hearn, a 25-year-old from New Jersey who did not care to reveal her occupation, was also there, wearing a short-sleeved taupe dress with exaggerated ruffles across the chest.

“I think ruffles are girly and playful,” said Ms. Hearn.

Except that the new ruffle is quite serious business. Bold and stiff, often folded like an accordion, it’s nothing like the floppy, Little House on the Prairie–ish furbelows of yore.

Phillip Lim, a designer known for his clean-cut structuring and modernizing of basic ideas, filled his fall 2009 runway with ruffles. He opened his show with a crisp light blue overcoat with rigid ruffles streaming along both flaps of the jacket from top to bottom. And he didn’t stop there, showing blouses with elevated ruffles along the sleeves and overly dramatized ruffles down the front—very Christopher Columbus. Mr. Lim turned down an interview request made by The Observer, leading us to speculate wildly: perhaps he is imagining women on a new path of voyage and discovery?

Some, when they think of ruffles, immediately flash on Mozart and Bach and other famous dead white men. Maybe Queen Elizabeth. The design dates back to the 15th century, but while it originated with men in a peacock-like phase of their evolution, the design in more recent years has been consistently associated with femininity.

However, the “new” ruffle being used by a diverse group of designers is far from the flirty, frilly one that we picture on our grandmothers. This arguably improved ruffle is much more structured and rigid—the prototypical city woman’s armor. No longer are ruffles simply embellishments: They now make a statement, and it’s a strong one. “It gives the wearer a sense of empowerment, something you won’t get from the traditional, flirty, romantic ruffle,” said Jenna Andreola Lonstein, a designer for Anlo.

Anlo, which began as a denim line, is branching into other kinds of sportswear, most notably different types of silk tops covered in—you guessed it—ruffles.

In the August issue of Vogue magazine, the concept was categorized as cool and classic “origami.” The pieces displayed, by Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan, were extremely unyielding and severe—but in a good way.

Ms. Karan’s strapless burgundy dress had flat ruffles layered on top of one another on both the top and bottom of the bustier; Mr. Jacobs’ deep blue top had a fitted body with a sharp “new” ruffle jetting out of the top.

Meanwhile, the iconic Valentino uses ruffles consistently, but he really went overboard with his fall 2009 collection, sending more than one black dress made entirely out of ruffles down the runway, a sort of last triumphant explosion before his retirement, perhaps.

It’s not just high-end designers who are taking this trim to new heights. Topshop was carrying a short-sleeved dress adorned with the new ruffle for $80 and a gray sweater with ruffles across the entire body and sleeves for $90. Nearby, H&M has a long-sleeved button-up shirt with ruffles along the buttons for $40.

And J. Crew, the classic American brand favored on more than one important occasion by first lady Michelle Obama, is showing a fall line featuring the new ruffle from head to toe, as if to lend us all a sense of pomp and ceremony as we gird ourselves for fall. “The dramatic ruffle detail gives a woman a sense of femininity, but it is more modern—it’s the evolution of a more romantic feel and a movement toward architecture,” said Tom Mora, vice president of women’s sales for J. Crew. “It has a much more sharp, crisp feel.”

editorial@observer.com