It seems to me that 2019’s inflatable culture is a classic millennial story: twenty- and thirtysomethings harking back to their youths, a time when Miss Selfridge was filled with inflatable backpacks and every student house had a blow-up armchair in baby blue or pink. Back in the olden days, the only things available to inflate were lilos, or the odd airbed. Now, shops are full of inflatable things – unicorns and sharks and llamas – all waiting to bob around a pool somewhere. On Instagram, young celebrities always seem to be lounging in blue water in blow-up flamingos or avocados or pizza slices. We are living in an age of literal hot air.
Inevitably, inflatables have made it to the catwalk. Like any great fashion trend, it has subtler iterations (indeed, this is how you know it’s a trend, rather than a subversive statement or a nervous breakdown). At the University of Westminster’s MA Menswear show this week, one student, San Kim, put a gentleman model in a see-through inflatable paired with white underpants. Footage of recent St Martin’s graduate Fredrik Tjærandsen’s balloon dress went viral after his graduate fashion show at the end of last month. It is a hyper-engineered piece that turns into a regular dress, sinking over the wearer, when deflated. A vivid and no doubt necessary seam makes it look like arse cheeks from some angles, but I wouldn’t say that was the most impractical thing about it.
There are phallic elements to some of this – Tjærandsen’s dresses, as they deflate, look a bit like condoms. In fact, everything looks a bit like a condom. But I don’t think that’s the core cultural take-home here. That playful “Ooh, a sausage, looks a bit like a nob” schtick only works in contexts where you don’t expect it, and everyone expects frisson from the catwalk.
Perhaps what is says is that we are at the theoretical endpoint of clothes. The dominant trend in any given season, which fashion people never mention because it is not cool, is: what does this make your body look like? Does it accentuate or minimise? Is it “masculine” (big shoulders) or “feminine” (small waists)? Are we throwing in a “regular” model to make a point? (The world is still unclear about what that point is, by the way; it’s definitely more complicated than “regular-shaped people are human, too”.) In a balloon dress, you have no shape. Even when it deflates, it is all bumps, so you go from looking like a melon to a blackberry, neither of which is a classic human form. You have broken free from your corporeal self, in other words; you can neither be judged nor run for a bus; you meet no physical standards nor invite desire. Wearing an inflatable is not a constraint but a liberation. There. Now we all want one, right?