Dark Matter: Inside Fashion's Current Horror Obsession

Kalen Holloman

This season, something wicked this way comes.

An ivory Calvin Klein frock decorated with scarlet splashes appearing suspiciously like blood. A Thom Browne little black dress, printed from neck to hem with an accurate rendering of a human skeleton. A pair of gory, baby-doll-dressed twins at the end of the Undercover show, a “Heeere’s Johnny!” moment straight out of The Shining. The runways for Spring 2018 were full of horror-movie imagery, and why are we not surprised? Fashion, like the rest of the cultural landscape, always reflects how we are feeling. And, right now, we fear.

Yet when the front page of the newspaper can seem scarier than the most frightening Stephen King novel, we apparently just want to retreat into yet more terror. Just consider what we’ve watched on screens big and small over the past year: The critically acclaimed Get Out presented a white-bread, upper-middle-class family who seemed perfectly nice—until they turned out to be mad scientists. The eerie classic Twin Peaks was brought back to life, and our enthusiasm for the aptly named American Horror Story showed no signs of abating. And did we not spend much of 2017 with our hearts in our throats, watching the tormented young women in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fable A Handmaid’s Tale? Those scarlet-hooded robes the enslaved maids wear so permeated our collective consciousness that the young label Vaquera offered a tongue-in-cheek but nevertheless harrowing collection based on this raiment and aimed, one supposes, at chic would-be Offreds.


From left: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images (3); Getty Images

Beyond movies and TV, a gloom-and-doom-minded observer might even say that we’re controlled more and more by the even spookier little screens we hold in our hands. We tweet and Insta, buy everything from dog food to diamond tiaras from ghosts in this literal machine, with news alerts updating us on the macabre and merciless all the while. Could our submersion in this technological dreamscape be having nightmarish consequences, giving rise, at least in part, to our free-floating anxiety?

You could, I suppose, fight this festering panic from your closet—a burst of sartorial laughter in the dark, going to battle in buttercup-yellow pedal pushers or a baby-pink pareo. But designers have something else in mind. They challenge us to burrow even deeper into the belly of the beast.

“American horror, American dreams,” declared Raf Simons backstage at his first show for Calvin Klein after leaving Dior, an extravaganza that featured an installation by Sterling Ruby with giant pompoms and axes straight out of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. For Simons’s Spring 2018 presentation for his own menswear label, shown at a fishy-smelling outdoor market in New York City’s Chinatown, scarlet jackets evoked— depending on your age—either the blood-stained mackintosh sported by Sissy Spacek’s Carrie or the fisherman villain in I Know What You Did Last Summer.

And then there was that crazy high hair at Comme des Garçons. Take a gander at Elsa Lanchester’s coiffure in The Bride of Frankenstein. It may have been made in 1935, but style is eternal and immortal, even if Boris Karloff is lurking around the corner. Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters behind Rodarte, went so far as to make their own horror movie. Their first film, Woodshock, released last year and starring Kirsten Dunst, rounded out an oeuvre that has included cobwebby pullovers, torn gowns, and S&M–inspired pieces.

Once you start looking, you begin to see menace everywhere. Didn’t those striped polo shirts at Clare Waight Keller’s inaugural show for Givenchy remind you of Chucky from Child’s Play? Or perhaps the explanation is simpler, merely the desire to try something new, something wild, to add a dash of paprika to all those dull salt-and-pepper basics bogging down your wardrobe. So go ahead, gussy up like every day is Halloween! If a glance at the morning’s headlines strikes fear in your heart, what else is there for you to do but slither into a skeleton dress and march out to face your demons?