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Designers channel romantic Victoriana for autumn-winter

Fashion designers love foraging through the antique markets of Clignancourt in Paris and Portobello Road and Alfie’s Antiques markets in London snuffling out vintage pieces for inspiration. The flurry of romantic Victoriana on the catwalks for autumn can clearly be blamed on this obsession.

There has been an undercurrent of reserved, covered-up fashion ever since Pierpaolo Piccioli and his former co-designer Maria Grazia Chiuri introduced a more demure aesthetic to Valentino five years ago. Longer skirts, prim higher necklines and covered arms have become the slow trend of recent seasons creating a hyper-feminine look.

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Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy and Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen have long been beguiled by the Gothic romanticism of Victorian fashion with their use of corsetry and dark dramatic lace and velvet for eveningwear.

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In fact, London-based vintage fashion dealer Virginia Bates admits she doesn’t remember there ever being a time when Gothic Victoriana didn’t feature in at least one designer’s collection. “The fascination with the romantics, poets, artists and even horror [classics and films] give designers a great source of inspiration,” she says. “It’s an irresistible era.”

Certainly a lot of it has appeared on the catwalks this season at McQueen, Marc Jacobs, Burberry (shown only a month ago in the see-now, buy-now collection), Simone Rocha, Preen, Bora Aksu and Temperley London, as well as at smaller brands such as Alessandra Rich, Three Floor created by Yvonne Hoang and A.W.A.K.E.

There were dark distressed Linton tweeds, unravelling knits and black tulle in Simone Rocha’s autumn collection. Rocha was pregnant when she started designing it and was inspired by Victorian dress and motherhood, in particular the nightgowns and matrons.

“All the wrapping and swaddling of babies,” she says, before elaborating on how “the Victorian ideals of properness were made perverse with the conservative and covered-up pieces contrasted by the sheer and embroidered fabrics.”

These gauzy vaporous fabrics succeeded in making her eerily romantic silhouette look rather contemporary and daring.

Subversion is key to making such a prim and proper period in fashion history modern and relevant for women today. Marc Jacobs, for instance mixed long Victorian coats, ballooning crinolines and crochet doily collars with sweatshirt tops and laser-cut leather for skirts and jackets together with some scary Goth horror make-up. Nothing is, or should be literal.

As Justin Thornton of Preen says “we love the Victorians, the laces and the white shirts, but it is the vintage pieces rather than the era that inspire us”. His partner Thea Bregazzi has collected aristocratic laces and ruffly vintage shirts from Portobello Road market for as long as he has known her and these frequently find their way into their collections, “but linings would be ripped, garments will have holes in them – it is a deconstructed look”.

Virginia Bates once owned a famous vintage fashion emporium in Holland Park with a client list including the biggest names in fashion from John Galliano to Donna Karan and Naomi Campbell. Now she only works with private clients and designers and they, especially, she says were looking for genuine Victorian pieces when planning their autumn collections.

“A black fitted jacket with inserts of handmade lace [that is] embellished with crystal and jet beads, boned and silk lined … How exciting and inspiring is that? Silk and fine lawn shirts, soft and flowing with ruffles. Don’t we all want to wear one and live the dream?”

Thankfully a few designers do right now, and there were lots of heavenly creatures in fragile asymmetric lace dresses toughened up with leather corsetry at Alexander McQueen, and richly coloured swishy dresses at Bora Aksu. While Christopher Bailey cherry-picked the centuries in his Burberry collection, lighting upon frilled white cotton shirts, nipped in jackets and military capes from the Victorian era. Given that Victoria reigned for more than 60 years there is a lot of history for designers to plunder, so this will not be the last we will see it.