Does clowning belong on the runway? Or is it just a desire to hide behind a mask and costume? Is it all about the spectacle, or is it a sign of our times?

It’s undeniable that clowning is having a major fashion moment. Whether it’s Viktor & Rolf’s couture clown dresses, Christian Dior’s big top act, or Bella Hadid gussied up as a glam clown for Moschino, we’re experiencing one of the weirdest, most bombastic cultural moments, in which clown-like theatrics have become the norm.

Does clowning belong on the runway? Or is it just a desire to hide behind a mask and costume? Is it all about the spectacle, or is it a sign of our times?

Christian dior SPRING 2019; Moschino Spring 2020

The trend dominated the SS20 runways of many fashion houses. Hadid sported a harlequin jumpsuit in Milan, with ruffle trim and holding a violin. Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri created a whole acrobatics act under a big top tent, with ruffled playsuits fit for a merry-go-round or Bozo with a red nose.

Even Armani Privé had models wearing pointed doll-like makeup, polka-dotted suits, and oversized, ruffled necks. Patterned harlequin motifs continued in Givenchy and Valentino’s looks, while John Galliano’s Artisanal collection at Maison Margiela had poodles as a central influence (a clown’s best friend), alongside over-the-top clown looks with fun fur, a Crayola palette, and wild patterns.

Christopher John Rogers SPRING 2020; Maison Margiela SPRING 2019

A lot of the recent runway looks have felt like a strong play on theatre. Givenchy’s Waight Keller created playful, sometimes comical looks, with ruffles with multicolor fringes, calling to mind clown-like creations, and Christopher John Rogers cited pantomime clowns and Pierrots as the inspiration for his SS20 show.

Clowning has reached designers off the runway, too. Puppets and Puppets, a new brand that bridges streetwear with clown-friendly 70s shag onesies, are designed by Carly Mark and Ayla Argentina, who use theatrical design to comment on overconsumption. The brand also recently featured a series of colorful harlequin nail patterns on their Instagram by Mei Kawajiri.

It’s a surprising trend for most of us, but as one critic asks, how did clowning in fashion end up working so well? Denizens of brands have turned to clown-friendly accents for high fashion, from polka-dotted pants to puff-sleeve shirts (not to mention striped pants from Staud, boxy big sleeves, and color-blocking).

Puppets and Puppets SS20; Puppets and Puppets FW19. CREDIT: puppetsandpuppets.com

The trend has weird beginnings. Clowning began in ancient Egypt, as royal leaders had actors dressed as jesters, wearing animal skins and imitating Egyptian Gods, which led to jester culture as a means of comedy for the royal courts later in the 1800s. From there, the trend continued to simmer: Elsa Schiaparelli showed The Circus Collection in 1938, featuring buttons on a shirt shaped to look like acrobats, alongside patterns of carousel horses, elephants, and clowns.

Especially since fashion runways have become a sort of entertainment for social media—with one comedian who stepped on the runway just to go viral on YouTube—one has to wonder: Why isn’t it okay to entertain audiences with full-fledged bombastic fashion, clown for clown’s sake?

Giorgio Armani Prive FW 2019/2020; Carolina Herrera fall 2019

It’s what calls “court jester realness,” which has made a return since it bubbled up in 2016, thanks to the return of the It franchise, the Joker film, and other weird pop culture references, like Wrinkles the Clown, a film released last month, which traces the weird world of a retired clown in Florida whose side hustle is scaring undisciplined children.

Clown makeup is also making a comeback, far beyond red lips chalky white concealer. While it may have started with club kid culture in the 1980s, and the likes of Leigh Bowery, it has shifted to be at the helm of Instagram stars like Princess Gollum, who claims to have her clowning looks inspired by 1990s bands Slipknot and the Insane Clown Posse. Elle Vatel, a makeup artist uses some of the same influences, while London makeup artist Tuttii Fruittii has been playing around with circus looks as of late, which are influenced by Slava the clown, a Russian performance artist clown.

Just last year, Eckhaus Latta used clown makeup, too, to debut their denim campaign (the red balloon was a nod to Pennywise the clown). The co-founders describe it as a kind of satire, nothing “the idea of playing advertising’s own game is interesting to us.”

TORY BURCH FALL 2019; ALEXANDER MCQUEEN AW09

It’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years since Alexander McQueen made a splash with his stunning, otherworldly clowns for AW09 as part of his Horn of Plenty Collection. McQueen worked with makeup artist Peter Philips and hairstylist Guido Palau to create clown-esque looks that rocked the runway—which poked fun at French couture. Some of the outfits, granted, were made of plastic bags and bubble wrap. It was a time when the 2008 recession had retailers, magazines, and advertisers in a tough spot financially, and McQueen made fun of the whole spectacle of fashion as a circus in itself. The designer said that fashion was a quick throwaway, there’s no longevity. Why clowning? McQueen told critics: “People don’t want to see clothes; they want to see something that fuels the imagination.”

Some fashion critics think this clown craze is inspired by the 45th president, since “Donald Trump is, after all, the world’s most famous clown,” one wrote. Indeed, it could be an extension of clowncore, a circus aesthetic that started taking over New York nightclubs and fashion in 2015. Perhaps it will all be over once the election results are in? Only time will tell.