'What is the secret of Hanging Rock? And who will it claim next?'
Picnic At Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay’s twisted 1967 novel, and the equally surreal 1975 film adaptation, has long enchanted audiences with its haunting tale of a group of schoolgirls who mysteriously disappear during an excursion to Australia's Hanging Rock on Valentine’s Day in 1900.
The first episode of a six part reboot courtesy of the BBC aired on 11th July and starred Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer as the severe schoolmarm Mrs. Appleyard. Intended to introduce the cult classic to a mass audience, the remake takes the story from ghostly fiction to contemporary thriller.
Both the book and film garnered critical acclaim upon release, but it was the story’s eerie presentation of discordant relationships between young girls and women – a theme we’ve seen inspire later works like The Virgin Suicides – that established its cult following. The film’s costumes, too, solidified its place in the canon of style on screen. The schoolgirls are languid visions with their hair in loose waves, wearing puffed and frilled Victorian white dresses that contrast with the dark circumstances in which they find themselves.
"The film has been an enduring inspiration for designers through the years, largely due to its unique mix of innocence and beauty with something more menacing," Coco Chan, head of womenswear at luxury retailer Stylebop tells Refinery29. "Designers love this kind of dark juxtaposition." Alongside the influence of 'prestige' TV shows like Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale, which also feature dark plotlines revolving around women in restrictive corsets and modest dresses with ground-skimming hems, the off-kilter hyperfemininity of Picnic At Hanging Rock can be felt across the industry, from fashion week to the high street.
Facets of the archetypal Victorian dress were seen throughout the AW18 and Cruise 2019 collections, with nipped-in waists, high collars, long sleeves and ankle-length hems starkly opposing the sexed-up glamour of Olivier Rousteing’s Balmain and the sleek simplicity of Phoebe Philo’s Céline, both of which have reigned supreme for the past few years.
"Simone Rocha really nails the balance of innocence with a darker undertone," Coco explains. The Irish designer has been weaving the froth and fancy of femininity for some time, but her AW18 collection took a morose turn. Bow-laden black tulle dresses were paired with elbow-length black gloves and patent creepers, and even her balloon-sleeved jacquard white dress – the closest in style to those of Picnic At Hanging Rock – has a sash of black bows across the chest and a peekaboo black shirt emerging from the collar, suggesting something altogether less innocent.
More recently at the Cruise 2019 shows in May, this look prevailed. While the majority of the Louis Vuitton collection – Nicolas Ghesquière’s fifth Cruise for the house – was Wild West-inspired, one look stood out. Model Eliza Kallmann wore a pure white dress with ruffled high neck, fluted sleeves and a tied waist, a vibrant red flame painted onto her forehead. Surely this more pointed take on cloying femininity, with its nod to the supernatural, was a salute to Picnic At Hanging Rock?
Even Gucci’s Cruise show, fittingly set in Roman burial ground-turned-Christian cemetery Alyscamps, included a simple Victorian look amid the maximalism of pink padded coats and ‘70s checked suits. Of course, the white lace button-down dress got an Alessandro Michele update of green lace-up boots, but the black hat with funereal veil once again added an element of darkness to an otherwise virginal get-up. Maria Grazia Chiuri presented perhaps the most direct translation of this kind of dress at Dior: with long sleeves, cinched waists and billowing hems, you could almost imagine her girls climbing up Hanging Rock one unfortunate day.
So why the growing fascination with subversive (albeit pretty) pieces that are more suited to 1900 than 2018? "I think certain cultural and political happenings at present have made this kind of reference very appealing," Coco argues. "Today’s global events may be leading us to long for items that represent simpler times." Of course, the Victorian era wasn’t a simpler time – poor health, war and poverty were all daily realities – but for (white, cis, straight) women it was the beginning of the suffrage movement and financial and political independence from men.
With 2018 marking the centenary of (some) UK women winning the right to vote, just as Donald Trump’s harmful policies and practices cause international distress, could we be subconsciously looking to the sober attributes of typical Victorian dress? "There is a sense of practicality in covered-up dressing," Coco says. "This is what makes this trend extra-special: it feels woman-led, which lends an air of liberated polish to its classicism. It captures the spirit of the moment, a type of rejection of the usual flash of skin for something more hidden and subversive." Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that flash of skin or the overt sexiness of figure-hugging styles, but something here feels disruptive, like we’re shunning the patriarchy’s idea of a contemporary woman and instead playing dress-up for ourselves.
Fashion retailers are seeing the trend unfold through demand for such shapes, too. Luxury e-tailer Net-A-Porter has seen strong sales from feminine, romantic brands like See by Chloé and Self-Portrait. Gabriela Hearst and Isabel Marant's Cruise and Resort collections feature languorous dresses straight out of Hanging Rock, while at Selfridges, Emilia Wickstead is in demand, with its Camila wool-crepe midi dress selling out fast. "The brand has always resonated with a Victorian influence, and this is the standout piece," Olivia McEwan, designer womenswear buyer at Selfridges tells Refinery29.
If the all-out modesty of the film’s saccharine style feels too much like a costume drama, look to brands like Alexachung and Ganni which are creating modern and super wearable versions of the virginal Victorian dress. Zara, too, has a selection of pieces that would look just as cool with box-fresh kicks as on a doomed picnic.
From what we’ve seen, the schoolgirls’ style has been updated for the BBC’s new adaptation, but it’s the 1975 Picnic At Hanging Rock that will continue to inspire our summer style.
The six-part series airs on Wednesdays, with episode three on 25th July at 9pm on BBC2.