A Hankering for Horror

A Hankering for Horror

Fashion and horror are frequently close cousins, and seem to be having another moment in the sun — or should we say in the deepest, darkest shadows?
Consider JW Anderson’s recent drop of clothes depicting blood-drenched scenes from the 1976 cult classic “Carrie,” all the “Stranger Things” product collaborations emerging faster than Demogorgons after dark, and Valentino’s boxed set of three unpublished horror novels, including Lucy A. Snyder’s “Sister, Maiden, Monster.”

The murderous Villanelle from “Killing Eve” has inspired brands ranging from Hunter to Coco de Mer, while fashion also figures big in a new exhibition called “The Horror Show! A Twisted Tale of Modern Britain” at Somerset House in London.

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And isn’t it eerie how certain episodes of the Netflix hit “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” nail fashion’s current fascination with all things ’90s?

“Horror is sort of like the color black and fashion — it’s a recurrent theme,” says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum of FIT in New York City. “There are seasons when horror is more in and other times when it’s not, but it’s always there, lurking like a virus, ready to pop up again.”

Claire Catterall, senior curator at Somerset House, says that at times of acute societal and political dissonance, horror always seems to come to the fore.

“The current levels of anxiety seemed to have hit stratospheric levels, and horror has always been a place of refuge, as well as redemption. It has always allowed us to make sense of our world, and our fears. And as such, it is reassuring, and also gives us the tools to stare down our fears,” she says.

When designers take inspiration from horror movies, the results are often unforgettable. Consider when Jun Takahashi of Undercover took on Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” for spring 2018, Raf Simons’ ode to “Jaws” for his spring 2019 Calvin Klein 205W39NYC collection, and Rodarte’s creepy-yet-pretty spring 2019 show, amid a downpour in the Lower East Side’s Marble Cemetery in Manhattan.

Steele also mentioned Rodarte’s fall 2008 collection that blended Kabuki theater and modern Japanese horror films. The Museum at FIT acquired a silk tulle evening dress whose hand-dyed fabric intentionally evokes blood in water.

Undercover RTW Spring 2018

Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

Fashion tribes that adopt elements of horror include the goths, cyber punks and certain factions of the hip-hop scene, according to Steele.

In her estimation, fashion is associated in a strange way with death.

“Remember Gabrielle Chanel saying fashion must die and die quickly so that it can live again?” she asks, also mentioning famous quotes about fashion and death from poet Giacomo Leopardi and artist Jean Cocteau. “Fashion sort of has its own internal death drive, because then you’re reborn again. It’s like snake shedding its skin. So there’s nothing more despicable than a recent fashion. It’s like ‘Oh yuck, why did we wear that? Now we’re onto the next thing.’”

Elsa Schiaparelli was among early couturiers to play with the death theme via her skeleton dress from 1938, and many others have played with “sexy death imagery,” often zeroing in on the vampire, a powerful figure.

There’s even a London-based brand, The Vampire’s Wife, that mines “the sexiness of vampires, who are much sexier than, you know, certain other horror tropes like zombies,” Steele notes.

Why might the designers and the public have a taste for horror again, besides the cyclical nature of things?

“Nowadays the world is so horrible and everything is so stressful from climate, to war, to Republicans,” Steele says. “A lot of people are just wanting to hide out in a pretend scariness instead.”

In fact, she characterized horror-inspired fashions as a type of “dopamine dressing” that boost the wearer’s mood.

“While fear is not a pleasant emotion, the release of tension after the moment of being frightened is, in fact, a kind of dopamine moment,” she explains.

Rudolph Mance, costume designer for “Dahmer” and “The Watcher,” two of the top series on Netflix, adds that “people are always fascinated in real life crime stories, so the fact that both of these stories, albeit disturbing, actually happened I think also help to draw in viewers.”

In addition, he adds that trends in fashion and entertainment often echo each other. “It can depend a lot on what the trends are at any given time, but it does seem to go hand in hand in terms of what’s popular on the runways in relation to what’s popular on TV,” he says.

A scene from “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.”

Courtesy of Netflix

Mance says he was struck how much of “Dahmer” style can be seen in New York City and beyond.

“I was just recently in Berlin, and it was the same story over there: The baggier, straight-leg jeans, the oversize jackets, crop tops, chunky sneakers,” he relates. “It’s interesting how it correlates.”

Olivier Tojn, director at Ghent, Belgium-based neuro-research and marketing company Beyond Reason, says psychology partly explains the correlation.

He cites 1983’s “The Hunger,” starring Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, as the ultimate convergence of fashion meets horror.

“The theme of this movie, as it is the case for most decent horror flicks, is power and dominance. The vampire’s power over life and death, dominating the prey in the web,” he explains. “The link between horror and fashion can be found in the fact that power and dominance are also two of the main implicit purchase motives for luxury goods. Wearing YSL gives me — at least the illusion — of having power over others. When I make an entrance on my Gucci heels, I feel as if I dominate the room.”

The glamour of horror is irresistible to the public right now.

To wit, one of Hunter’s top-selling collaborations has been with “Killing Eve,” the BBC America TV series whose star is the psychopathic contract killer Villanelle. Despite (or maybe because of) her day job, she always looks polished and fabulous, using a glittering hair pin as a murder weapon, or bolting from the scene of a crime in stylish footwear.

Hunter’s chief executive officer Paolo Porta says the brand is always looking to speak to popular culture, as well as to different generations and audiences. And Villanelle’s look has proven a winner.

“What attracted us to ‘Killing Eve’ was the realism, the horror — and the incredible sense of style. People are so attracted to that glamorized universe. They want to be part of that story and, likewise, Hunter wants to be part of that narrative. The character of Villanelle has so much allure and attraction that we wanted to get closer to her on screen,” and to Jodie Comer, the star of the series, too, Porta says.

Hunter’s audience was so taken with the collaboration, they were willing to plunk down twice the average Hunter boot price, or around 395 pounds, for the “Killing Eve” Chasing boots and other styles. Hunter certainly took its work with the show seriously. One style, a pair of short boots, has a military feel and comes with a little pouch “where you can store your penknife, or anything else Villanelle might need,” Porta says.

An image from the Hunter x Killing Eve campaign.


Nostalgia for old horror shows and genres is also tugging at the public consciousness, one reason why Moon Boot decided to work with “Stranger Things,” where the latest season is set in 1986.

It has just unveiled three styles inspired by the Upside Down, a dark, parallel underworld dusted with ash and inhabited by monsters. The boots feature a reversed logo and some also showcase images of the dark vines from the underworld.

Best to store those in the closet, rather than by the bed.

Catterall of Somerset House says “Stranger Things,” in particular, is a “really good example of the kind of freshness of ‘new horror.’ It’s retro and also plugs into a whole kind of dark romanticism,” she says.

That mix of nostalgia and horror also speaks to a new audience. Catterall points to the way that Kate Bush’s 1985 song “Running Up That Hill,” the theme song of the latest season of “Stranger Things,” has become a hit among a generation whose parents were teenagers when it was first released.

A potent brew of glamour, and nostalgia for the horrific, fueled Jonathan Anderson’s decision to create a capsule inspired by the 1976 film “Carrie,” based on horror master Stephen King’s first published novel.

“I always gravitate toward strong characters, and Sissy Spacek’s iconic performance as Carrie was incredible,” Anderson says. “The film also presents a different kind of kitsch that’s really inspiring, with ’70s prom references and the horror of it. I like how it has become a complete cult classic with such a dedicated fan base and admirers.”

He says he was drawn to the film’s “great cultural relevance and the designs of the original film posters. It was really interesting to translate these on to ready-to-wear and accessories in a way that’s still so relevant now,” Anderson says.

The capsule was first introduced earlier this year with a series of images featuring actress Hari Nef, photographed by Juergen Teller. Printed as billboards and mounted on vans that traveled the streets of Milan during fashion week, the images were then shot again by Teller for the official release.

Gareth Pugh’s “Spirit of Ecstasy” part of “The Horror Show! A Twisted Tale of Modern Britain” taking place at Somerset House in London.

What other psychological factors explain the public’s taste for horror right now?

According to Tjon, “one theory within the entertainment industry is that horror is a convenient and risk free way of experiencing a ‘light’ version of mortal fear. Which is probably correct.”

He notes that horror evokes the feeling of relief from surviving a brush with death.

“It is only relatively recent that we don’t have to fear for our lives 24/7,” he says. “Picture yourself living in a cave. And your cave is raided by wild beasts. Some of your tribe die and some survive. Just imagine how much a relief that must have been. For our ancestors, it was probably one of the strongest emotions they’ve ever experienced. Horror might be a surrogate, allowing us to relive this. 

“Remember how good it felt that Clarice was not eaten by Dr. Lecter?” he asks, referring to the 1991 hit “The Silence of the Lambs.”

“Horror movies are about anxieties that lie within us and they kind of release those anxieties by exorcising them on the screen,” says director Luca Guadagnino, whose latest feature film “Bones and All” is a love story about two fine young cannibals, portrayed by Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet. “So I think there will always be appetite for that genre.

Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet in a scene from “Bones and All,” directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film.

Yannis Drakoulidis / Metro Goldw

“The problem is that because we live in very difficult, conservative, right-wing times, the movies reflect that kind of attitude — it’s the anxieties of the conservative right wingers, which are not very interesting.”

Guadagnino says he felt honored that Undercover’s Takahashi created a collection inspired by his 2018 remake of “Suspiria,” and he describes Anderson’s “Carrie” collaboration as fantastic — and radical, given that the designer is referencing a film from the ’70s.

“It’s about the irony, and the passion that these amazing designers encompass through their work,” he says.

Preview clips of “Bones and All” show its protagonists in typical American casualwear — jeans, waffle knits, camp shirts and the like. According to Guadagnino, “the codes of behavior that comes across via the clothing are more important than the fashion itself.”

Could it be a case of — gulp — you are what you eat? “These characters are people who are kind of taking over other people’s identity. And somehow you can see how this comes across the way they turn to use items of clothing from other people’s lives to make them theirs,” the director teases.

Whether it’s horrific or not, the moving image is exerting an ever more powerful influence on the public mind worldwide, and brands are eager to align themselves with the players on screen.

“We live in a time where television series, in a way, have become their own fashion brands. Just like people have a favorite dish or article of clothing, they now have a favorite TV series, which provides them with a sense of identity,” a Moon Boot spokesman says.

Porta of Hunter would agree. “We spend so much time looking at a screen, whether it’s in our palm or on our wall. And, for us, that’s one of the biggest ways of reaching new audiences,” he says.

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