Historically the sartorial domain of Catwoman and sex shops, PVC clothes are being rehabilitated on the catwalks by designers as diverse as Lanvin and Nina Ricci, as well as appearing in the wardrobes of numerous style icons. Once thought of as leather’s slightly more promiscuous cousin, the PVC look has been used to add an unexpected twist to everything from trousers to skirts, trench coats and pinafore dresses. But how did the PVC fashion trend develop from its risqué roots into a style that would barely raise an eyebrow on the streets?
PVC pop culture
The beginnings of the PVC clothes trend tend to be associated with the swinging 60s and 70s. In fact, PVC was discovered much earlier than this – the 19th century – and was first used as a practical alternative to wax jackets. Fast forward to the 60s, and Paco Rabanne pioneered the high-fashion version of the PVC dress, with shifts and minis constructed from PVC discs and metal chains that at times had more in common with architectural structures than items of clothing. His creations signalled a new way to wear the material that emphasised the form of the fabric, rather than the silhouette of the person wearing it.
Later, the overt femininity and sexuality associated with the PVC look was co-opted by male rock stars such as Mick Jagger, who wore his outlandish PVC catsuits with a generous dose of virile swagger. David Bowie was also partial to the material, pairing skintight catsuits with knee-high PVC boots. Both performers used fashion to challenge the established perception of the gender dichotomy, and dragged PVC further into the realm of boundary-pushing style while they were at it.
In the 90s, the PVC clothes trend mutated once again, with pop icons from Destiny’s Child to Britney Spears and the Spice Girls pouring themselves into PVC outfits. This traditionally restrictive and, at times, objectifying material was re-appropriated as something synonymous with girl power. Superheroes followed suit, and throughout the 90s everyone from Catwoman to Batman battled their demons in the slick black material.
PVC for a new generation
In 2013 the first stirrings of the return of the PVC fashion trend hit the catwalks, with Cara Delevingne opening Topshop Unique’s autumn/winter 2013 collection in a PVC A-line mini matched with a crop-top and fur overcoat. The rest of the show contained a plethora of high-shine items, with the traditional connotations of the material subverted by using quotidian colours such as beige and brown, or else by pairing the sleek fabric with cosy wools and knits.
Proving that PVC doesn't have to be skintight, the Philosophy Di Lorenzo Serafini AW16 collection featured vinyl high-waisted trousers with oversized and baggy silhouettes. Dior and Loewe both used autumn/winter 2016 to signal the joys of coats crafted from the fabric, while Lanvin, Nina Ricci and Isabel Marant took the traditional trench and gave it a vinyl update.
With a more nostalgic nod back to the origins of the material, the Courrèges autumn/winter 2016 collection featured 60s style vinyl miniskirts in a rainbow of colourful hues. Wanda Nylon, meanwhile, embraced head-to-toe black PVC with outsized ensembles reminiscent of Johnny Depp's iconic Edward Scissorhands costume.
The PVC fashion trend hasn't only seen a resurgence on the catwalks – it's just as likely to be worn in the streets. At Glastonbury 2016, Alexa Chung paired black PVC trousers with the trappings of rural life: a Hades jumper, Hunter boots and a classic wax jacket. This look was echoed in the Isabel Marant autumn/winter 2016 collection, which juxtaposed vinyl trousers with soft jumpers featuring diamond patterns reminiscent of traditional golfing attire.
Anthony Vaccarello similarly twinned black PVC trousers with soft grey jumpers for AW16. Gisele Bündchen took inspiration from this look during her 2016 appearance on the Jimmy Fallon show, using the combination of sleek and softer fabrics to reflect her new position as party-girl-turned-mum. Equally, Style Heroine founder Evangelie Smyrniotaki has ben pictured pairing her black, high-wasted vinyl trousers with a fitted black jumper and dark berry lips, while actress Kiernan Shipka has mixed burgundy PVC trousers with a red chunky knit jumper. Paired with cosier fabrics, PVC clothes lose their overtly sexual connotations – but maintain their alluringly tough-luxe edge.
PVC clothes may have outlived their shock value, but the material can still be used to add surprising twists to otherwise everyday outfits. Fashion houses are leaving the skintight catsuit in the 90s where it belongs, choosing instead to explore unexpected silhouettes and pairings. As long as they keep embracing the material's potential for new combinations and incarnations, designers can continue to liberate the PVC look from its overtly sexual past and bring it into a sleekly sophisticated present.