Representing the creative future

Sinéad O’Dwyer on tackling the systemic oppression of the female form

The womenswear designer on the importance of utilising body shape in the design process, rather than making clothes that simply fit

Everyone’s tired of hearing ‘the new normal.’ But why aren’t we exhausted from hearing the word ‘normal’ alone? Since graduating from the Royal College of Art’s MA Fashion programme in 2018, Sinéad O’Dwyer has been confronting the primitive values of the fashion industry that dictate a standardised body norm. Marginalising those that don’t conform to sample-sizes and by result, interrogating the artificial standards of beauty, the London-based womenswear designer considers the disparity of the female form through her distinguishing life-cast human moulds and silicone lingerie.

Sinead O'Dwyer AW21 Collection, Photopraphy by Ottilie Landmark

So how do you confront an industry that mainly caters to bodies that range between Size 4-Size 12? By continuing to switch it up. This is exactly what O’Dwyer continues to do for her AW21 collection, aptly titled The Switch. A provocation of bodily empowerment, this season, the designer continues to celebrate and champion women, and female-identifying bodies, with a collection that documents the anxieties that arise with the coming of age while exposing the typecast culture of the fashion industry. O’Dwyer – who returns the muse of her early work, model, and friend Jade Bruce-Linton – addresses how clothes are often graded up when made for larger sizes without proper consideration as to how it fits the body. “A lot of my work is very intuitive and emotional,” shares the designer. “And certain people who are bigger sizes and/or have bigger boobs are now reaching out or writing things about how the garments feel really fresh for them and painting them in a new light.”

The collection, which features O’Dwyer’s signature crystallised busts alongside leather coats, thigh-high boots, and crisp white shirts is a riposte to the systemic oppression against the female form. And in doing so, the designer is acknowledging one of the greatest misconceptions of any designer, who ought to be catering for all body shapes and sizes: it is not about the clothes’ relationship with the body, but the body’s relationship with the clothes.

Sinead O’Dwyer on tackling the systemic oppression of the female form
Sinead O'dwyer design development
Sinead O’Dwyer on tackling the systemic oppression of the female form
Sinead O’Dwyer on tackling the systemic oppression of the female form
Sinead O’Dwyer on tackling the systemic oppression of the female form
Sinead O'dwyer's sketches and development
Sinead O'dwyer's sketches and development
Sinead O'dwyer's sketches and development
Sinead O'dwyer's body fittings
Sinead O'dwyer's body fittings

You named your AW21 collection The Switch. What was the meaning behind this title and what does it mean to you?

The Switch is a reference to lesbians and BDSM, but also there are several layers to that. The embroidery for the collection was based on a piece of artwork commissioned by the illustrator Christa Jarrold. I wasn’t sure what the embroidery on the straps was going to be about initially, but I was really obsessed with the book Lost Girls. It’s quite a dark story and has lots of elements about coming of age and sex. There was one particular image, which depicted a flurry of naked bodies, and I began thinking about how I wanted to create some sort of theme using embroidery based on those ideas. That was one of the layers of the collection related to queerness, but also for me, I feel like if you’re a woman or female-identifying body that maybe presents more of a femme body – just because they have boobs or hips or more fat on their body, you’re typecast more. So it’s about broadening the spectrum of what one can wear if you have a bigger bust size or are curvier.

What prompted the starting point for this collection?

The shirt was the beginning point of the collection and it’s based on the same sentence that I used from the beginning of the brand. I remember a very specific conversation I had with my sister when I was around 12 or 13. She was laughing and joking saying “I can’t wear shirts, I look so matronly,” because she had bigger boobs, suggesting that “I can never look cool or edgy.” I had no boobs at the time and was always like “ok whatever,” but it stuck with me. And so I wanted to start with a shirt that was cut so that you could still have the traditional menswear cut and fit, you know, that straight-cut? A lot of the women I spoke to shared that they don’t really wear t-shirts or shirts that go close up to the neck because for them it becomes a large expanse.

Sinead O'Dwyer's casting process
Sinead O'Dwyer's casting process
Sinead O'Dwyer's casting process

“When people talk about hourglass shapes, there’s a pressure to always define the waist or make a shape.” – Sinéad O’Dwyer

How far are these conversations fundamental to your research process?

I have those conversations quite often anyways. It definitely becomes part of my research, but I think for myself, it’s emphasising that you don’t have to flatten your chest or try to look straighter in order to have the sharp, more traditional silhouette. Often when that is done, it’s by choosing models who have a flatter bust and a very narrow hip and it’s like ‘oh androgynous’. When people talk about hourglass shapes, there’s a pressure to always define the waist or make a shape. So I wanted to emphasise the bust and create some straight garments. If you have a curvier body, you don’t have to be the curvy person all the time, being typecast to fit in one box. Which also relates to the idea of a versatile switch.

Were there any particular reference points that you selected for The Switch or did you build from pre-existing ones?

I started this collection a long time ago. It was pre-pandemic and I was planning on showing in Spring/Summer, but it was during this time that I started reflecting on myself as a teenager. My mother’s a cellist and I’d listen to the music she would play at that particular time, reflecting on those experiences when I was a teenager growing up in the countryside. I always used to sneak out the window at night and hang out with my neighbour and get up to no good in the fields. One of the jeans is based on that, hanging out in a ditch at night.

One image I’ve had on the moodboard the whole time is a photo by Nan Goldin from Tokyo Love book. It’s an image of two women, one of them is wearing latex garments and it has a really interesting construction with clips, so I kind of did my own version of that with double-sided suspender clips. Also, the book I mentioned, Lost Girls, is very much about that period and older women talking about these crazy stories from when they were younger. There’s a darkness and a beauty to it. I was reimaging that period through a queer lens, so I drew my myself and my wife and then a bunch of our friends with their partners in this fun orgy scene. I asked Christa if she was interested in working with me, which I also used in the teaser, but that was actually deleted by Instagram unfortunately because now apparently even illustrations are censored.

Sinead O'dwyer's fittings
Sinead O'dwyer's fittings and studio

“A lot of my work was linked to the fact that you can’t necessarily find your size in luxury fashion or if you find it on the high street, it’s just been graded up and hasn’t been designed specifically for the shape of your body. ” – Sinéad O’Dwyer

The philosophy behind your work is about creating a faithful representation of the female form and narrating the complexities around body image. While that exists throughout your work, how does this collection differ?

Before, I was really focused on showing how these curvier bodies are excluded in order to highlight how a lot of the issues in the garment industry are related to bad fit, exclusion, mental health, and dysmorphia. A lot of my work was linked to the fact that you can’t necessarily find your size in luxury fashion or if you find it on the high street, it’s just been graded up and hasn’t been designed specifically for the shape of your body. Everything has been super personal for me and I’m ok with slowly inching forward. The first collection was very much about conversations with people and my own experiences. This collection is about my own impressions and ideas of the edginess of the straight line and how you don’t always need to have something fitted in order to wear garments that cover up the chest more. It’s much more focused on the bust, a feeling that I was trying to express that I hadn’t seen before. For me, that was the new direction.

The design principle behind it is that I’m taking the bodies I was talking about before as the beginning of the design process, and opposed to designing something and then just making it fit. Jade is the initial model we used from the first collection and the body that I lifecast and these clothes have been designed for her body. It’s a continuation of it, but by looking at specific garments, as opposed to before when I was focusing on the bodies. Now, I’m looking more at archetypal garments and the styles or ways of dressing the shirt, the leather coat, the leather trousers, the thigh boots and picking out garments that are really difficult to find that fit you well. Especially leather garments. Real leather is more of an item that can be found in luxury fashion and if no buyers will buy bigger than a certain size, brands won’t make bigger than a size 12 and sometimes 14 or 16. If you have the money to spend on leather trousers, where are you going to buy them other than being made to measure? We wanted a really stunning super-high fitted boot that fit Jade to a tee. I just wanted to make a pair of trousers that fit her to perfection. Jade said to me, “I’ve never actually worn a leather trouser ever.” I think most women can relate to the thigh boots because it’s notoriously difficult to find the right size.

You often work with a muse or people that you know, how important is it to foster a sense of community in you when you’re working?

It just makes so much sense because people like Jade are the people I want to dress and also, I really trust her and respect her opinion. It’s funny because the first look we put together was one of her first shoots and my wife’s first shoot. I had difficulty with casting the other girls because there are way fewer curve models than there are sample-sized models and there’s a lot more, say, size 12 curve models. I also don’t like those labels, they’re stupid. But finding someone the exact same size and proportion as Jade so that I could easily fit the garments on was difficult. I loved working with Raphaela and it was nice to have more models on set but that’s something I’ll have to think about for next season. Do I want to have two different models so I can have more scope for the casting stage? I think before I wanted to make sure I was representing all sizes but that’s really difficult. So I think each season I’ll add one new proportion, one new size.

Footwear development

“I realised that business-wise I wasn’t eligible for any funding from the BFC – I literally might as well have been invisible – so I needed to get my business together and stop living in the realm of “I can work as a Nanny and make creative work and be really conceptual.” – Sinéad O’Dwyer

The AW21 shoes were designed and developed in collaboration with the amazing @tabitharingwood. How did this partnership come about?

Tabitha and I did the MA at the Royal College of Art at the same time. She’s an amazing person and an unreal shoemaker and designer. I’ve always wanted to work with her and so we had a conversation pre-pandemic about getting some ideas together. In her own practice, she makes these incredible super-fitted boots and was really excited about making things to fit Jade and people of similar proportions. Initially, for the project, we had more models in mind but that was before the pandemic and managing realistic expectations. In terms of the sole development, we looked at my first mould with these curved body shapes and took the curves from those to help create the shoes. The reference to it being Mary Janes is again me looking back to my adolescence and I just love the references of innocence combined with the orgy scenes.

How would you describe the experience of designing during such a tumultuous year? How has it altered your practice?

When the pandemic hit, I, like everyone else, stopped going everywhere and did scrubs for two months as well for NHS staff. I wasn’t really thinking about the collection anymore which I think probably has made me more focused and realistic. Whereas before, I was always super broad in my ideas and maybe much more idealistic about what I could achieve. I realised that business-wise I wasn’t eligible for any funding from the BFC – I literally might as well have been invisible – so I needed to get my business together and stop living in the realm of “I can work as a Nanny and make creative work and be really conceptual.” I do want to continue working that way but I do want to develop and be more business-minded so that I can help change this really big problem in the industry.

Sinead O'dwyer's fittings

“I think women and female-identifying bodies have been shoved into various boxes for a long time and we’re coming to a place where we’re creating space for people to just be how they are physically without always having to change. ” – Sinéad O’Dwyer

Since you’ve been running your own brand, have you noticed a change in how the industry is breaking down body norms and addressing the systemic neglect for all women’s bodies?

There’s been huge changes. I don’t know how sustainable they are or if they’re coming from a place of just being friendly. I read an article on the Business of Fashion recently that said brands have to do curve lines but they’ve all failed or stopped after one season. I don’t really know how it is in luxury fashion and how they’re getting their head around it, but I feel like there’s been a lot of change in the last few years and that a lot of young designers have been focusing on this issue. That’s been a small part of why people are starting to understand that it’s wrong and not just accept it, whereas when I was growing up, you just had to accept it.

Your work is about giving a voice to the emotional experience of female oppression, a ripe feeling in the media right now. What do you hope to see going forward and how can the fashion industry learn to help make that voice louder?

To look at people on a very human level and also an individual level to help build empathy and them caring about creating something for that particular person. That’s what good design should be full stop, really looking at a person and what they might need and want and how they want to be represented. I think women and female-identifying bodies have been shoved into various boxes for a long time and we’re coming to a place where we’re creating space for people to just be how they are physically without always having to change. You shouldn’t be allowed to cater for only one size. That’s really wrong. If you’re a size 18, 20, or 24 you can’t buy as many things unless it’s bags and accessories and that’s really, really, fucked up. It’s really disruptive.

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