Styles come and go, but some defy the odds to become long-running trends, such as the ubiquitous peplum.

By Alyx Gorman.

The fashion trend that isn’t fading: the peplum

Some trends are bigger than others. Many styles, such as kaleidoscopic tropical prints, will trickle down from the runways of hip emerging labels or major fashion houses (Mary Katrantzou and Stella McCartney respectively), get picked up by large handfuls of local brands (Fashion Week Australia, 2012), only to die swiftly on the high street, when it turns out most consumers have no taste for the look.

Others, such as skinny jeans, linger so long they are barely considered “trends” anymore.

It is rare for a distinctive style to reach complete ubiquity in a short amount of time. And rarer still for it to remain fashionable for several seasons.

But that is exactly what has happened to peplums. A peplum is a single ruffle of fabric that flares from the waist or hip, and sits over the rest of an outfit like a tiny skirt. Peplums can be attached to the bottom of blouses and jackets, to the top of skirts, or sewn straight onto dresses.

Depending on who you ask, they can either work to perfectly emphasise a small waist and disguise a slightly protruding stomach, or conversely to perfectly disguise a small waist and emphasise a protruding stomach.

The dress that kicked off a national obsession with the design feature was from English designer Peter Pilotto’s Spring 2012 collection. Kingfisher blue, with electric white zigzags, a sporty zip neckline and a multilayered peplum that fell like tulip petals from the waist, it was a complex but very modern cocktail dress. Good design is never enough to make a trend. The right people have to wear it, too. In this case, Miranda Kerr was a fan. She wore the dress to a MOMA gala in New York in November 2011, and where she went, Australian designers followed. At Fashion Week Australia in 2012,
it was rarer to see a collection without a peplum than with one. Unlike their reaction to tropical prints, consumers responded favourably.

According to Google trends, Australia hit peak peplum in October 2012. But the style’s true focus was the first Tuesday of November. The Myer marquee at the Melbourne Cup was the epicentre of the trend, and its waves were felt across every high street store, in every pub, at every office race-day party.

It experienced a similar surge in Britain, around office Christmas party time.

When a style is so prolific, there are likely to be more poor takes on the form than skilful executions. The peplum remained popular throughout 2013, with labelling it “the trend that won’t die”. But there was backlash. On style forums such as Vogue and The Fashion Spot, earnest, multipage conversations took place wondering how much life was left in the style.

By 2014, Julia Roberts’ lacy black Givenchy Oscars dress aside, the peplum finally seemed to be running out of puff.

The exhaustion didn’t last. Peplums began to trickle back into fashion in January of this year, and in the current crop of resort collections – which will be released just in time for Australia’s high summer – they are nearing ubiquity once more.

Peplums first came into favour in the 1850s, when they appeared on riding habits, as well as over corsets and very full skirts, and on jackets with very full sleeves. They made a resurgence in the 1930s and ’40s, on dresses and jackets with strong shoulders, nipped waists and A-line skirts. In the 1980s, the shoulders on peplum jackets became even wider – the one worn by Princess Diana at Royal Ascot in 1986 had almost Victorian proportions. The peplums of 2012 were more aggressive. Rather than being one flounce among many, they were typically the only protruding feature of otherwise skin-tight outfits. They were often placed on sleeveless tightly tailored or even jersey dresses, jutting out on the waist like a scrunchie on a fence post. The best efforts were more structured, such as those created by J’Aton Couture  for Rebecca Judd, Australia’s high priestess of peplums. Most did not meet that standard.

This year’s batch have mercifully returned to being one design feature among many, added mainly to tops and jackets, not dresses.

Karen Walker’s sit above the waist, giving swing tops in baby blue cheesecloth and coral bonded jersey an extra hit of swing (fitting, given the collection was Love Boat themed). “[Peplums are] just flattering and great in warm weather so it felt right for resort,” Walker told The Saturday Paper.

Anthony Cuthbertson, in his second collection for Sass & Bide, added a hint of a peplum to a shiny silver strapless corset, worn with a gauzy printed skirt. The look is all Metropolis – the top robot; the bottom cityscape.

Zimmermann’s version is paisley printed and bohemian. With petal edges, its peplum top has a continuous line running through the centre, thanks to circular flounces added to the sleeves at exactly waist height.

Camilla and Marc offset the subtle peplum on an all-black cocktail dress with a bold off-the-shoulder rolled neckline and giant sheer panel set into the skirt.

Perhaps the most open-minded adopter of the peplum this season is Kit Willow Podgornik, formerly of Willow, who has launched a new label, KITX, for resort 2015. The feminine collection, crafted primarily from sustainably sourced, plant-dyed fabrics, features several soft, unstructured peplums. They look both romantic and entirely different from the structured, rigid garments of 2012.

Retailer Scanlan Theodore, a relatively reliable trend barometer, has dozens of items that feature a peplum in stock, including, bafflingly, a pair of peplum trousers. On the high street, Cue has an entire section devoted to “peplum tops”. In both these cases, it seems the peplum was never really gone, but was simply lying dormant, waiting for some of the fuss to die down.

Many of the designers now playing with peplums eschewed the look the first time around. Others have learnt to balance the feature better. Certainly, being featured on a top, rather than a dress, has been enough to bring new life in some cases. If this new crop of peplums is able to find willing homes with the ease of their 2012 counterparts, then they could well end up becoming a defining trend for this decade. Or perhaps, like skinny jeans, they’ll linger so long that our eyes adjust and we barely notice them at all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 18, 2015 as "Peplum position".

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Alyx Gorman is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.

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