Call it the Game of Thrones effect. Chainmail, once the preserve of medieval knights, 1990s supermodels and 1960s style icons, has won fashion’s favour this season, roaring back on to the catwalks and dazzling on the red carpets. But beware: it’s not for the faint-hearted.
In the past month Tilda Swinton wore a chainmail dress in Cannes, while Sienna Miller and Crazy Rich Asians star Gemma Chan brought the look to the Met Gala. On the small screen, Brienne of Tarth put her chainmail to the test more than once during the fantasy epic GoT, which came to a dramatic end last week.
Chainmail’s ability to embody both disco-ball frivolity and battle-ready ferocity has made it a hit with online retailers, too. At Asos and Boohoo it appears in the form of slip dresses, strappy tops and slinky earrings. According to fashion search engine Lyst, searches for “chainmail” have gone up 28% since the beginning of March. A necklace reminiscent of a camail – a piece of neck armour designed to prevent the wearer from having their throat slit – by the fast-fashion brand Nasty Gal is also “getting all the attention”.
Valerie Steele, director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, credits GoT with bringing chainmail back. “That show has been such a phenomenon that even if, like me, you’ve never watched a single episode, you’ve seen a million images of these weaponised women,” she says.
Chainmail also featured on the spring/summer 2019 catwalks – from Saint Laurent to Christopher Kane. At Paco Rabanne, a label that has chainmail woven into its history, it appeared on gold and silver tunics offset with frills – proof it isn’t all about battening down the hatches. According to Natalie Kingham, buying director at Matches, which stocks chainmail from a number of labels, “with brands like Paco Rabanne taking the look further and playing with the fabric for more demure gowns it … feels very relevant.”
For some, however, it never went away. The 1960s French singer Françoise Hardy wore Paco Rabanne’s chainmail shift dresses, while Jane Fonda opted for it in the 1968 film Barbarella. Versace produced his 1994 Chainmail collection, while Donatella walked down the catwalk with the 90s “supers” in 2017, each of them dressed in variations on the theme of a gold chainmail dress.
Chainmail was present throughout the Britpop decade – see a young Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell in chainmail dresses and, in the noughties, Paris Hilton made it “hot” once again. Earlier this month she also revisited the chainmail look she wore to her 21st birthday party circa 2002. With 1990s and 2000s styles currently back with a vengeance, chainmail is following suit.
Tobias Capwell, curator of armour at London’s Wallace Collection, isn’t surprised that fashion keeps drawing on chainmail. “It’s endlessly fascinating and visually wonderful,” he says. Chainmail’s battlefield history – it was developed by the ancient Celts as early as the 3rd century BC – means it is often used by designers as a visual signifier of strength, according to Capwell. Although, as he points out, today’s fashion chainmail wouldn’t be much good on the battlefield.
It toys with sexuality, too, something Capwell says comes from armour’s dual ability to hide and expose – which “is what sexuality in any clothing is about”. Steele, who in 2006 curated an exhibition called Love and War: The Weaponised Woman, agrees: “It’s armour but it’s open, the chains have holes in them.” Today’s iterations often appear on skimpier garments, from bikinis to barely-there frocks, but they can still be read as shorthand for power. “In a modern fashion context [chainmail] resonates as an image of female empowerment,” says Capwell.
It fits that Alexander McQueen, famously set on designing clothes that spoke to female strength, had a chainmail moment for autumn/winter 1998 with his Joan of Arc collection. And the Joan associations of chainmail certainly endure; see actor and singer Zendaya, whose custom Versace chainmail gown drew instant comparisons at the 2018 Met Gala.
Yet, according to Rowena Archer, a lecturer in medieval history at Oxford University, Joan of Arc would “never actually have been seen dead in a bit of chainmail”.