“WE HAVE MISSED THE FUN AND SPONTANEITY OF THROWING ON A DRESS”
As women switch from pulling on athleisure bottoms to slipping into drop-hem maxis, Laura Craik explores fashion’s new love affair with the dress – and whether the perfect one really does exist
Idon’t remember much from my childhood, but I do remember this: being seven and running home in tears because I’d caught my favourite dress on a gate. The skirt was ripped from waist to hem, and I was inconsolable. “We can mend it,” soothed my mum, not that the words “invisible stitching” sounded very soothing in her Scottish accent (“invus-ibul stu-tchin”). I wasn’t a crybaby, nor did I care whether my jeans got muddy or my shoes got scuffed. But dresses? They were different. They were special.
It’s unclear by what strange alchemy a dress inserts itself into the female psyche and becomes a mini love affair, rather than merely “a dress”. Maybe it’s weddings. Maybe it’s the Oscars. Maybe it’s a million other social events that conspire to place the dress at their centre. Either way, a woman’s love for dresses tends to blossom young and bloom for a lifetime. Of course, this doesn’t hold true for every woman. God forbid you should feel compelled to wear a dress if you prefer trousers. This isn’t the ’50s: we can and should wear trousers anywhere, even down the aisle.
And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. Thanks to their prevalence on the catwalk, trouser lovers have had a pleasing few seasons of easy separates and luxed-up sportswear. But now, dresses are taking centrestage, with an abundance of enticing creations making even the most ardent trouser wearer yearn to bare a leg. At Chloé AW17-18, dresses were sheer and babydollshort or long and languid. At Prada, they were beaded, tasselled and trimmed with feathers. At Erdem, they were mid-length, ornate and steeped in historical references. And at Roksanda, they were belted, in an array of rich colours. Take away the boots and heavy coats and they transition perfectly as the weather gets warmer – nothing says “summer” like a dress (except an ice-cold jug of Pimm’s drunk alfresco in a beer garden).
So why has the dress returned with such a vengeance? “There’s nothing that’s easier [to wear],” says Tilly Macalister-smith, editorial director of Diane von Furstenberg. “It’s such a pleasure to slip on one item and be done. You can get a lot of mileage out of a great dress, too. I have a silk navy long-
sleeved dress from Tibi that I wore over jeans in winter and will wear with slides in summer. I think we are re-embracing our feminine sides and enjoying dressing up; athleisure hung around for one season too long and we have missed the fun and spontaneity of throwing on a dress.”
Already, a number of “super-dresses” have broken rank to dominate the season. JW Anderson, a designer known for shirting, has aced it with his asymmetric metallic dresses. Céline’s loose shirt-dresses have proved natural successors to last season’s easy trousers. And Balenciaga’s floral teadresses have been a hit with street-style stars, even if no-one wears them quite like the show’s stylist, Lotta Volkova, who teams hers with thick, ribbed sport socks.
While there’s certainly a preponderance of handkerchief hems, drop waists, bright florals and luxurious fabrics (chiffon, silk, intricately woven lace), with so many wildly different types of dresses on offer, it would be reductive to pinpoint one particular style as key to the new look – that’s why what you wear with your dress matters so much. More than its hem length or neckline, it’s the accessories that will anchor your dress in the moment. Volkova’s socks won’t work on everyone, but they add that requisite off-kilter look that feels so right for now. Matches Fashion buying director Natalie Kingham agrees that casual is the way to go. “Team a dress with contemporary sandals or a loafer or lace-up,” she advises. “A flatform is a good option if you’re petite.”
That flat, utilitarian footwear is proving a popular accompaniment is understandable. We love our Stan Smiths and backless Gucci loafers: why give them up because dresses are back? These aren’t frocks you have to wear with heels or a “ladylike” handbag.
It’s true that pants suits are still very popular – Hillary Clinton may not have become US president, but her legacy endures. Trousers aren’t just things you pull on when it’s cold or you haven’t shaved your legs; they’re seen as a political statement, aligning the wearer with a set of feminist values. Yet it would be a strange world if trousers being synonymous with women’s liberation meant dresses were diminished by comparison. Just as no woman should apologise for loving Barbie, princesses or pink (or pink Barbie princesses with bells on, if that’s her thing), nor should women feel any qualms about wearing a dress. Melania Trump’s sexy shift dresses might look like they’ve been picked by Trump to exude trophywife status, but maybe that’s just her style.
Be it form-fitting Roksanda or wafty Gucci, woe betide someone who comes between a woman and her favourite dress. I still mourn the passing of my Whistles dress, irretrievably ripped down the back after I tripped over a suitcase at the airport. The fact that I didn’t realise the entire baggage-claim area had a full view of my knickers was a blight far easier to bear than the prospect of life without this useful dress.
“My mum’s usually pretty chilled – there’s a wardrobe of clothes she doesn’t wear, and sometimes I get things altered,” says Anaïs Gallagher, the 17-year-old daughter of interior designer Meg Mathews and musician Noel Gallagher. “I was taking this leather dress and she saw me. She said, ‘Anaïs! That’s a one-of-a-kind Alexander Mcqueen dress that he made for me – you can’t get it chopped into a minidress!’” That’s the thing about treasured dresses: age cannot wither them. Unless they’re made of cashmere, in which case the moths will have a good go.
Stray suitcases and experimental daughters aside, a judiciously chosen dress will last you a lifetime. “One of my favourites is sherbet-lilac in a fil-coupé fabric from Diane von Furstenberg,” says Macalistersmith. “It’s so pretty and unusual. And I have an Adam Lippes black sleeveless dress that will never go out of style. I wear it all year round, and just switch out my accessories.”
That there’s no all-pervasive style setting the tone this season is all the more reason to dig out your old and best-loved dresses. Despite being a hoarder, I’m on the hunt for a new one – the dress that will assuage my every sartorial woe. Will I find it? Will it be as loved as the favourite one I tore aged seven? Like the perfect man, the perfect jeans and, in my case, the perfect cheese, maybe the perfect dress is just an illusion. Oh, but looking is such fun.
“WE ARE RE-EMBRACING OUR FEMININE SIDES AND ENJOYING DRESSING UP”