The History Of The Peplum Trend — And Why It’s Here To Stay

Waist poufs through the ages.

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history of peplum
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It’s OK to see the phrase “peplum trend” and need a shot of vodka. After all, it was only 10 years ago that the look — a jacket or dress cinched tight at the waist, with a flouncy ruffle of fabric underneath — wove its way through the fashion industrial pipeline of Vogue to Gossip Girl to Forever 21. In fact, when I first asked fashion’s rising stars to speak on the peplum trend and its history, I was met with some literal LOLs.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh god, how uncool!’” laughed Sintra Martins, the buzzy New York designer behind Saint Sintra, which counts pop royalty like Olivia Rodrigo and Katy Perry as fans. “If I’m doing a peplum, it’s either to accentuate the waist, or to generate this unfashionable taboo and then subvert it.” Which might explain why her recent runway show — which, PS, was so in-demand that a fellow editor and I ended up sharing one seat — featured a pink peplum that starts to literally tear apart halfway down the dress. “It’s one of my favorite looks, actually,” she says. “It takes the peplum trend and makes it an abstract expression.” The overall effect is half princess, half art school dropout. “Of course,” Martins sighs, “Fashion loves a girl with a jagged edge.”

But before peplums were edgy, they were holy — literally. First named a peplos in 500 BC, early peplums were huge swaths of cloth cinched and then pulled up at the waist, creating a “double bubble” effect of fabric right around the hips. A Louvre statue from 5 B.C. shows the goddess Athena proudly wearing a stone one, and during her festival rites, a priestess would lead a group of young girls in the prayerful weaving, sewing, and draping of a real (and really massive) pelpos for her temple idol. Fast forward a little bit, and the women of Sparta (famously good at sports and war games, like OG tributes of District One) made the peplos much shorter, with added thigh slits for mobility that scandalized some of their other Greek neighbors.

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The peplum trend as we recognize it — the cinched waist, then the pouf — was sharpened by Queen Elizabeth I herself, who took inspiration from a menswear doublet as a way to signify sophisticated power in the face of misogyny / war / the ever-present threat of getting one’s head whacked off for being in charge. “Some women say ‘I don’t want any more fabric at my hips; I don’t feel sexy,’” says Jackson Wiederhoeft, the Thom Browne alum whose fantastical corsets and gowns have snagged him a recent CFDA nomination. “But to me, the peplum trend is all about power and sex. That proportion, when done right, is so impactful.”

Queen Elizabeth’s followers agreed; by the 1600s, the Spanish infanta Maria Theresa was painted by Velasquez in a peplum so extreme, it looked almost like a bodyguard, where the stiff fabric makes even her handmaidens play keep-away with the dress. The 1600s is also where the peplum got kind of emo — check out Dudley North, a Renaissance aristocrat who should be played by Brendan Urie in the biopic. (“Panic! At the Peplum” maybe?) It’s worth nothing these cinch-or-perish Renaissance vibes were heavily referenced by Alexander McQueen’s early work, which still influence the line today.

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Around 1850, the peplum hits the Victorian / Prairie Girl sweet spot that we still recognize as cottagecore. FIT’s fashion database says the peplum trend was perfect for the Industrial Revolution’s collision of prudishness and practicality because it “allowed for mobility, while still concealing the hips and thighs.” Nu Wave Prairie Girl Batsheva Hay points out that “a peplum is that perfect mix of ease and adventurousness, because it’s all one piece, so you can buy just one garment and still get a lot of bang for your buck.” Which is why when factories started producing mass garments, peplum shirts — or “shirtwaists,” as they were often known in the early 1900s — were a huge hit with cosmopolitan women who had just enough cash to buy something modern.

The peplum got expensive again in 1946, when Christian Dior created his famous “new look” silhouette: elegant suiting in stiff silk, with a triumphant flounce of extra fabric at the waist — something impossible during wartime, as all fabric was rationed by France’s Nazi invaders. Food was also rationed in wartime Europe, sometimes cruelly, which made the peplum trend even more meaningful to French women whose natural curves had been depleted by starvation — a fact Mr. Dior knew well, as his sister Catherine had survived a concentration camp after working with the French Resistance.

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“That New Look shape is so iconic now,” says Wiederhoeft. “It’s the modern definition of a peplum. So if you want to honor that look now, you can either adhere to it very closely or, what I prefer, maximalize it so the peplum becomes its own new statement about glamour and power.” (That’s what Thierry Mugler did in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when he turned a peplum into a pink satin clamshell for his Birth of Venus runway presentation. It's also what Nicole Kidman did when her Armani gown at the Oscars poufed prominently at the waist.)

A model wearing Thierry Mugler’s iconic “Birth Of Venus” dress during the designer’s Fall/Winter 1995 show.Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

“I think if you want to do the peplum now without looking like [Blair Waldorf], you try it first as a top,” says Hay, who notes that Batsheva’s own peplum blouse is a best seller. (“It looks good on f*cking everyone!” she exclaims. “Do it with jeans and flats and it’s just cool.”) For a more formal take on the peplum trend, you can also experiment with corsetry, as Sydney Sweeney and Tory Burch did at the recent Met Gala. “I like the idea that we’ve internalized the corset as a culture, by getting so obsessed with ab workouts and waist training,” says Martins. “A peplum really works against that.” In that way, you might say — emphasis on might — that the Euphoria star was rebelling against the culture of body perfection by showing the way her corset and peplum created the va-voom shape of Hollywood dreams.

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And the peplum trend isn’t going anywhere. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen it on Kate Middleton (in prim Alessandra Rich), Lily Collins (in Prabal Gurung), in Jason Wu’s newest collection, and on the Givenchy runway. “It makes your body smaller and bigger at the same time,” says Wiederhoeft, “Which is just extremely cool. We know that we aren’t just one thing, that in fact, sometimes we as humans are contradictory. The peplum is also two things at once, and that can be great fun.” Hay agrees, though she urges you to explore the trend IRL to see how it fits with your wardrobe. “Now is the time to actually go into a store and try something on,” she says. “Take a baby peplum and take a bigger one, and see how you look. It’s really fun to try something outside your comfort zone, because trying on clothes is free, and who knows? You might feel really cool.”

Keep scrolling to shop some of TZR’s favorite peplum pieces out there right now.

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