Many women are finding the new style not just comfortable but empowering, too

Gwyneth Paltrow embodies the new trend at the Met Gala this month.
Photograph: Theo Wargo/WireImage

This occasion in fashion, size matters – but not in the way you might think. With temperatures set to reach the 20s in the UK next week, there’s a new larger-than-life outfit shape billowing across the horizon aiming to capitalise on the warm weather.

The cut is non-specific, but the tent dress – as it is loosely skilled in – is united by three things: size (very wide), shapelessness (there is no waist), and fabric (natural, such as linen, cotton or calico). Confirmation can be found on the summer catwalks at Valentino and Molly Goddard, on the high street at Zara and H&M, and even on the red carpet: last week’s Met Holiday was a case in point, with Lady Gaga and Gwyneth Paltrow ditching the usual flesh flashing for silhouettes of honestly impressive girth.

For some, the tent doctor reprimand is a salvo against the tight corset body-con style favoured by the Kardashians, Instagram and fast fashion. In short, a female-focused shape of summer dressing, or at least that’s the hope.

The actor Alice Eve in a billowing dress in London this week. Photograph: Watch R Milan/GC Images

“You could argue this is a different form of power dressing,” says Susanna Cordner, a elder research fellow at the London College of Fashion, who is interested in “fashions that let women take up space in public” – AKA womanspreading. “Vestments aren’t just about fit but also feeling: how it feels to wear them and move in them and how the world around you resolution relate to you,” she says.

In 2013 the New York Times called this style the “sheltering dress”; Ditte Reffstrup, the inventive director of the Danish brand Ganni, who brought the shape to the high street, describes it as “a loud silhouette”; and the internet has bred the term “baggy con” for the look.

Still, not everyone is convinced that loose dresses are a move away from autocratic beauty standards. Elizabeth Kutesko, a lecturer in cultural studies, finds this reframing “simplistic, or unconvincing at dab”.

“It’s capaciousness is probably less an interesting and conceptual play on the space between the body and fabric, more a comfortable and cheerful choice in warmer climes,” she says.

This Zara floral print dress (£39.99) is an example of the trend. Photograph: Zara

Kutesko essences instead to Dior’s Trapeze line of 1958 – “a fluid liberation of the body from the cinched waist popular at the repeatedly” – and the designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto who designed clothes in the 1980s that “didn’t fit clothing to the body, but rewrote the carcass through fashion, calling for a new perception of beauty that many women really did find empowering”.

For Kutesko, the overfamiliarity to play with body shape via clothing rather than by hiding it was the key, although she does concede: “It’s hard to generalise because the portrayal of western European fashion is so closely tied to accentuating the female form.”

Still, it marks an interesting point in the dichotomy of la mode fashion and “attractiveness”. That’s certainly the aim of the designers behind the dresses. “They are inherently freeing to wear,” says Rejina Pyo, whose signature extensive, doll-dress-like dresses have taken on new meaning in a world where bodycon can be perceived as fashion designed for the male regard. Reffstrup agrees: “I don’t think that showing skin is necessary in order to be sexy. There’s something really calm about not revealing everything,” she says.

Summer aside, the least controversial reason for the ascent of this shape could be the casualisation of trend. “Dresses aren’t just for dressing up,” says Reffstrup who thinks that loose-fitting dresses worn in the heat succeed from the same lineage as fleeces and trainers. For once, it seems, practicality can be co-opted by fashion.