Authors of a new book on iconic dresses, Sarah Gristwood and Jane Eastoe, explain why they have such long-lasting allure.
THERE is something about a dress. No other garment carries such a weight of fantasy, whether it’s your first party dress, the little black dress that makes you feel fabulous or your wedding dress.
Ask any woman – the frock makes a statement about who you are and who you want to be.
This year has been the Year of the Dress – fashion editors have decreed the dress the must-have purchase of the season and as London Fashion Week kicks off there is every sign that 2009 will continue the trend.
This winter, Kate Moss’s Topshop collection features more of her popular floral tea-gowns, while Dolce and Gabbana declare they’ve taken winter inspiration from our very own icon of traditional dress, the Queen.
When the seasonal fashion circus began in New York last week, the London-based duo behind fashion label Preen showed cocktail dresses with swirls of fabric over a clinging sheath.
Victoria Beckham also presented her own line of close-fitting, classically-inspired dresses, surprising fashion editors who didn’t know that Posh had such a good eye for style.
We’ve already seen VB as one of the stars to wear the latest, waiting-list-only figure-hugging dress by Roland Mouret. We’ve seen Kate Middleton, among other celebs, wear the curvy little-girl ‘Lucky’ dress from London label Issa.
We’ve seen dresses in trailing lace and hand-painted fabrics – and that’s even before we mention that frock feast of a movie, Sex And The City.
What’s more, with a range by its stylist Patricia Field coming to M&S shortly, expect more high-street celebrations of out-and-out womanhood – whether sexy, sassy, classic, sweet or quirky.
Field, regarded in the fashion world as a great arbiter of style, highlighted this new passion for dressing up in dresses – but the question is, after decades when the right to wear trousers still looked like the mark of modernity, why is the dress suddenly so popular?
One theory says that in times of economic crisis we find safety in traditionally feminine dressing.
It happened in 1929, when the Wall Street crash signalled the instant demise of the Twenties flapper frock, with its skirts above the knee.
Or maybe we should take a more optimistic view, and say that in a post-feminist age women are finally freer to enjoy their femininity.
“Feel like a woman – wear a dress,” as designer Diane von Furstenberg, queen of the wrap dress, famously said.
Yet another theory says that the credit crunch is steering shoppers towards making only a few, significant purchases – and that with the weight of fantasy it carries, a frock is still the most significant garment that a woman can buy.
Dresses have always captured the mood of the moment.
The Little Black Dress was born out of the world between the wars, when women no longer had the time (or the servants) to deal with frills and furbelows.
The Forties New Look was a reaction against Second World War austerity, and the hippy generation gave birth to Laura Ashley.
These garments have the zeitgeist woven into their very fabric: Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s; Princess Diana on the steps of St Paul’s; Twiggy waif-like in one of Mary Quant’s minis; Coco Chanel in one of her own revolutionary frocks.
Who has ever forgotten Elizabeth Hurley in Versace’s famous safety-pin dress, with the great stripe of exposed flesh highlighting her lack of underwear? Or catwalk photographs of some of Vivienne Westwood’s amazing creations, from tartan ball gowns to mini-crini?
Iconoclasts like Vivienne Westwood are what London fashion is most famous for, and no doubt some of the dresses shown this week won’t be meant for instant wearability.
Hussein Chalayan for one has made dresses of ice or sugar, to be broken with a hammer on stage, or else of paper or bubbles. In one recent collection, he worked with the robotics team who created the hippogriff in the film Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban so that the dresses themselves morphed – shorter, longer, tighter, broader – to give a 10-minute history of 20th Century fashion.
Mind you, there’s nothing new under the spotlight: 40 years ago Mary Quant prophesied that some day we would blow clothes the way we blow glass, and 30 years before that Schiaparelli, influenced by the Surrealists, dressed the Duchess of Windsor in a frock with a giant lobster on the front. As Coco Chanel put it: “Only those with no memory insist on their originality.”
But maybe there has to be an element of magic about the clothes we see on the catwalks, even if by the time they reach the high street they’ll have been watered down a degree.
Fashion week is an opportunity for women to salivate over the most luscious designs. If men fantasise about sex, surely women fantasise about frocks – fabulous frocks, whether from the golden age of Hollywood or today’s red carpet glamour, short Sixties shifts or sheer Fifties romanticism.
Sexy or feminine, classically pure or clad in colourful fantasy, we can all wear each and every kind of dress on the right day.
As Hollywood’s great costume designer Edith Head once said: “Clothes have to do with happiness, with poise, with how you feel. You never forget the dress or suit in which you looked well, felt right, and lived wonderful moments.”
The last century has seen drastic changes of style, with hemlines swinging from ankle to thigh, outlines alternating between the body-hugging and the bell.
The long and the short of it is that dresses are easy to wear, comfortable, flattering – and, of course, men adore them! However you look at it, the fascination of the dress, this most iconic of garments, shows no sign of going away.
Fabulous Frocks, by Jane Eastoe and Sarah Gristwood, is published by Pavilion Books, priced £25.