Imagine gently swaying palm trees, a gaggle of young women wearing brightly coloured bikinis lying on towels in the sand and a handful of tanned, muscled surfers riding the crest of a wave at sunrise. This was the beach-party paradise portrayed in ’60s films like Beach Blanket Bingo, Muscle Beach Party and Clambake (the latter starring Elvis Presley as an oil heir who trades places with a water-ski instructor).
These wildly popular films were entertaining, but more than that, they were a cinematic distraction from the Vietnam War, the threat of nuclear apocalypse and the dire environmental warnings Rachel Carson foreshadowed in her book Silent Spring. (Her seminal treatise, which was published in 1962, is credited with igniting the modern environmental movement.)
The audience who attended these lighthearted films was mostly affluent white teenagers who felt they didn’t deserve to inherit the political and environmental troubles their parents had created. The movies, which focused on teenage love and frothy squabbles, became their cultural shorthand for opting out of society’s expectations. It was cool to cast off the shackles of responsibility and be young and carefree.
Surf culture “resurfaced” in a big way this spring as designers referenced the clothing, music and social scene that defined it. At Chanel, the late Karl Lagerfeld transformed the Grand Palais into a posh seaside setting where models walked the sandy-beach runway while artificial waves lapped over their bare feet. Anna Sui and R13 brought back low-hanging board shorts paired with breezy sea-salt hair tucked under printed bucket hats. Film clips of a glistening ocean were the background at Calvin Klein, where models wore muscle shirts emblazoned with the poster from 1975’s Jaws.
Marine Serre created utilitarian and sustainable looks using aloha prints and upcycled scuba suits. She drove her efforts home with the phrase “Futurewear,” which appeared on many of her pieces. Even Thom Browne offered a whimsical nautical-inspired collection with oversized starfish, shells and sequin-encrusted mermaid skirts. Ambush’s Waves collection combined laid-back trends with wetsuits, tie-dye tops, silver leis and fringed straw sun hats. While surfboards may have appeared at fashion week, it’s hard to imagine Ambush’s metallic-gold-and-silver one or Etro’s paisley-printed one ever catching waves.
So why were designers so taken with the beach scene this season? Was it a curious nostalgia for Bumble and Bumble Surf Spray and Blue Crush? Douglas Booth, emeritus professor of sports studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand, says it has more to do with our collective yearning for the “freedom, idealism and fun” associated with surf culture and that we associate the sea with “tranquility, calm, escape and wonderment.” He adds that neuroscientists have confirmed that whether we’re immersed in it or just looking at it, water has a soothing effect on our brains.
Who wouldn’t want to take refuge in beach culture at a time when the natural landscape is under stress? These collections were a sartorial salve during a time when the earth was experiencing considerable unrest. The Kīlauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island, which was the inspiration for Ambush’s collection, had erupted, destroying as many as 700 homes. And shortly after Calvin Klein showed rolled-down wetsuits and swim goggles, Hurricane Florence wreaked havoc along the east coast of the United States. But the worst is hardly over. Last year, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report saying that the world has a mere 12 years left to limit the damage that will be caused by global warming.
Michael Kors, who showed underwater prints and baja sweaters, told Women’s Wear Daily that his collection was an antidote to a world that is upside down. “I say kill them with kindness, spirit, joy and charm,” he said. It’s a soothing, albeit escapist, sentiment that offers a little stylish reprieve from the pressing political and environmental realities we face.