One hundred years ago, there was no such thing as a dress. At least, not as we think of it today: a single, head-to-toe-or-knee piece of fashion frippery. It was only when the avant-garde of the early 1900s got hold of the chemise—for a millennium merely a sweat-absorbing, washable inner layer—that, a bit like Madonna in Jean Paul Gaultier’s bra-tops, underwear turned into must-have outerwear.
Since then, the dress has changed and changed again, granting, as does no other garment, an immediate insight into the social structure that produced it: the way we wore the way we were. And though many of the dresses of the past century have been only flimsy defences against the world—exposing the body to criticism as well as the elements—they are still believed to have an immediate transformative effect. Wear a dress, and you shall go to the ball—or down the red carpet, or up the aisle. No old woman is going to reminisce about her best coat; but she’s almost obliged to be nostalgic for her old frocks.
Few dresses, historically, were single garments. Post-medievally, women were collaged from multiple parts that added up to a whole. Elizabeth I’s splendiferous 1588 Armada portrait “dress” (right) was in fact rigged from more than a dozen components—including skirt, underskirt, undersleeves and winglike oversleeves, gold-embroidered and supplemented with mounted gems—temporarily attached to a bodice. Her wardrobe crew bought thousands of new pins every few months to hold the whole together, not very securely—pins must have pinged on the floor whenever she moved. It was meant to be overwhelming when viewed from afar—across a cathedral or court. As a theatrical triumph, it is unsurpassed because of its discipline: a modern eye still reads it as a “dress” with consistent imagery in Liz’s signature black, white and gold.
Before the 20th century, what we now see as a simple one-piece dress was usually a disjointed bodice and skirt—such as the black satin gown flaunted in 1883 by Virginie Gautreau, billed by her portraitist John Singer Sargent as “Madame X”. Gautreau was a New Orleans belle, the faithless wife to a Parisian banker, and expert in artifice (she used stage cosmetics—then thought whorish—eyebrow pencil and lilac-tinted powder). Singer Sargent persuaded her to pose in the dress, possibly made by the Parisian couturier Charles Worth, or his rival Emile Pingat: whichever, it was a stunner. The silhouette of the early 1880s was narrow, but Gautreau demanded something even narrower, and alarmingly untrimmed. The dress had the fashionable cuirass, or armoured, bodice, held up by a bone armature. Most women added a decent froth of frill over the shoulders; Gautreau pared it back to vestigial straps. It was this that was the shocker when the portrait was displayed in the Paris Salon. There she stood, sans long gloves or mitigating wrap, so provocative—and worse, a strap had slithered off her shoulder. A slut in her shift! Gautreau dented what reputation she had. Singer Sargent decamped from Paris to London. He tautened the strap, but it was too late for both.
That’s the risk of the going-for-broke dress—when the reaction doesn’t go to plan, it can break the wearer. The best literary, and movie, dress uses this failure as a plot point: Margaret Mitchell knew Yankee embargoes in the civil war had left southern women drably clad, and she had experienced the make-do-and-mend of Depression poverty. This informed her scene in “Gone With the Wind” in which Scarlett O’Hara, scrabbling by in ruined Tara, improvises a gown from her mother’s velvet curtains. Scarlett needs to charm $300 from Rhett Butler to pay taxes on Tara, and uses every retrieved scrap of the curtains, even the fringe, for a dress. The outfit restores Scarlett’s sense of her seductiveness, and Rhett is conned – until he registers her workworn hands, and denies her plea. Walter Plunkett, designing for the film, bleached sun-faded streaks into the velvet and used a tasselled tieback as a girdle; Bob Mackie, pastiching the movie for Carol Burnett’s television show, had Scarlett vamp Rhett wearing the curtain pole as well.
Real sartorial heroism tends to be quieter. Unlike Wallis Simpson—all fashion, all the time—Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother had only two, post-coronation years of chic. In 1938, for a state visit to France, Norman Hartnell put her in white crinolines derived from Winterhalter portraits, lovely reveries for a world without pressing business, let alone immanent total war. What became her more were the plain matching dresses and coats Hartnell, and the firm of Reville and Rossiter, produced in austere accordance with wartime utility regulations – just about within clothing coupon allowances, albeit in superior fabrics elevated by salvaged platinum fox fur, accessorised with pearls and a resolute brooch. Track through monochrome photos of her picking her way among East End rubble and the same dress recurs, a uniform she retained publicly for life. Her daughter, in age, now subscribes to those same three-quarter-sleeved shells. The brooches twinkle on.
The only contender for a best dress I’ve actually worn was a rather more technological, American approach to war shortages, the work of the Garment District technician and free spirit Claire McCardell, who decided, when Paris and its fashion came under Nazi control, that her compatriots should turn instead to American, industrially manufactured sportswear. Her “Popover” dress—a response to a 1942 challenge from Harper’s Bazaar for a wartime outfit thrifty in price and materials—was the cheapest possible date at its original price of $6.95 (even her later evening versions never bust $30). “Popover” doesn’t quite describe its ingenious and dateless cut. It was a wrap-around housedress—developed from the crossover pinafore that in period drama garbs housewives at sink and wringer—but with a sharp collar, wide sleeves that could be rolled up, and a huge patch pocket, all in washable cotton, topstitched dungaree-style.
If I ever did concede that a big frock might drop ’em all dead—win the prince’s heart, or the studio contract, with a single appearance—it would have to be by the eccentric Anglo-American couturier Charles James. Everything James wrought was engineered as much as sewn: soft sculptures balanced on a living figure. His ultimate architecture was his four-leaf-clover gown from 1953, with a 7kg skirt of silk and velvet constructed of four intersecting crinolines, distended not with steel hoops but by an understructure of wide, stiff horsehair braid, canvas and bones. The strapless bodice was seamed to create the fantasy breasts of the American Populuxe era, with its aesthetic of Chevy sedan tail-fins and chamfered Frigidaires. Like most of James’s limited output, the dress was a private commission for Mrs William Randolph Hearst junior, in this case intended for her triumphal entry to President Eisenhower’s inaugural ball in January 1953. It wasn’t finished in time (there are thousands of woman-hours of hand sewing in the skirt’s hidden rafters), so she exported it to London—in its own trunk—and wore it to a coronation ball. Where she must have taken up far more floor space than Her Majesty.
There are times when all that matters is who’s inside the dress. The Hollywood costume designer Jean Louis earned a deserved reputation for solving figure difficulties with a satin number for Rita Hayworth in “Gilda”, filmed a few weeks after she gave birth: he heat-moulded bars of Perspex to restrain her curves. Marlene Dietrich colluded with Louis over her cabaret wardrobe: body-formed gowns that denied gravity and time—she was then in her 50s—in semi-sheer marquisette and nude soufflé, dyed to match her skin tones, then spangled. When asked in 1962 to outfit Marilyn Monroe to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr President” to John F. Kennedy in Madison Square Garden, he adapted Dietrich’s camouflage: the dress, so tight the naked Monroe had to be sewn into it—her rounded tummy crucial to her allure—was a double-strength sheer, strategically beaded. The organisers approved it by daylight, where it looked opaque on its hanger. Under stage lights, the fabric seemed to melt away, and as Senator Adlai Stevenson gasped, Marilyn was up there whispering in “skin and beads”.
That was the last of its subtle kind, though. By 1962, the mode was already an unwaisted, sleeveless shift for a breastless figure, shortening by the year until it became the mini. Mini-ness always worked better in dress form, dropped from the shoulder, than as a skirt, especially when the dress was just a blank for graphics—mini-girls were kiosks, postered with modern art, Op, Pop and Abstract. The first “Mondrian” dress, gridded like the artist’s paintings, was a 1961 proto-shift by the American wholesale designer Anne Klein. But not until Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrians in 1965 did the idea succeed, partly through couture skill—his colour blocks are marginally shaped to skim the body while suggesting right-angled rectangles and bars—but mostly through abbreviation. An inch longer and they would be a gabby, arty bore.
Generosity with fabric was always the pleasure of the floral frock, which doubled as holiday simplicity and daytime “best dress” of ordinary people, a hopeful allusion to youth. I love Cacharel’s Liberty-print frocks—eternal summer blooming still—but the most memorable, and singular, floral was the sheer shift a pregnant Celia Birtwell wore to Kensington Registry Office in 1969 to marry, at long last, Ossie Clark. (Next day he flew off on honeymoon, alone.) Birtwell’s late 1960s prints were influenced by Ballets Russes costumes that had recently been auctioned at Christie’s; her Goncharova-style, flat jam-tart of a rose print, called “Candy Flower”, was on the dress yoke, while the drift to wrists and ankles swirled with Art Deco flowerheads, the “Mystic Daisy” pattern she re-used in her 21st-century Topshop revival. Clark cut the dress with a sashed waist above the baby bulge, a shape less difficult than his other pieces. The very idea of a long, soft dress, herbaceous all over, felt radical after two decades of hard, and one of short. And it still seems bold, for all its material delicacy, defying the post-war, white-wedding dress industry.
True, most voters in a recent British poll favoured frocks classifiable not merely as defiance but as conspicuous outrage, their ideal being the Versace black silk and Lycra sheath Liz Hurley wore to the premiere of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” in 1994. In the furore afterwards, Hurley explained that she couldn’t afford a dress for the occasion, and when the only sample left in the Versace press office fitted her, gratefully borrowed it. (Plausible, but unconvincing.) The dress was a cartoon. Small cloth spinnakers concealed the nipples though nothing much else; cutouts and slits up, and down, from the hipbones were fastened – which is far too certain a verb – with giant gold safety pins. Gianni Versace claimed these were punk-inspired, though I doubt John Lydon would’ve so much as spat at it. The real significance of the dress was that it marked the moment in fashion when red-carpet exposure, in every sense, became more important to brand-publicity than the catwalk show.
And the very best of these best of breeds? There is no absolute perfection, only a job well done, and which dress you prefer depends on what task you asked of it. The many votes for the Versace were less for the garment than for the gossip it provoked; but Madame Gautreau’s strap flung in the face of society was a sexier scandal, as well as a far stronger design. The James ballgown is an aerodynamic achievement—it doesn’t sway or wobble, but glides, the wearer apparently legless beneath it—yet not even Mrs Hearst junior could have felt fond of it.
And this is where I have to admit I’m a dress sceptic. Compared with the power and freedom of Edward-ian tailored suits, and the handsome swagger coats of the second world war, a dress so often seems to leave women more vulnerable and incapacitated than a man. Oh, I do admire the textile skills and design in a grand ballgown or wedding dress, but can only laugh at their fantasies of an unleadable, unlivable life. It isn’t possible to go to the loo in most ball-gowns—do Oscar stylists supply chamber pots? So I’ll choose what I believe in: the Popover, that mass-produced dress meant to do an actual job in the house (the prototype came with matching oven glove), office or armaments factory. McCardell’s design is democracy in action; its magnificent can-do attitude must have made so many women, of all ages and sizes feel confident, competent and comfortable. Plus they got change from $7.