I’m having a wrap dress moment. Not wearing one, of course not, these are Corona days where for most of us the closest we get to wrapping is putting on our bathrobe, but I am thinking about them at least, which is something after all.
Wrap dresses have been popular for about as long as they have existed, as much a staple in most women’s wardrobes as a classic white tee or a pair of black heels. They are considered universally flattering whatever your body shape or proportions, which makes them hugely versatile. Most famously, the Jersey wrap dress catapulted Diane Von Fürstenberg to fame in 1974 and neither the popularity of the dress nor the success of its designer have looked back since. It remains the go -to choice for the busy professional and the rich and famous alike, timeless, ageless, classless. Cybill Shepherd wore a wrap dress in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1975. The dress was low-necked with a tie-waist, casually chic and both film and dress became cult 70s happenings. Sarah Jessica Parker wore a vintage wrap in Sex And the City, the Carrie Bradshaw character and the dress both being symbols of female sexual liberation, female empowerment in the workplace and, of course, New York. Kate Middleton, Madonna and Oprah have all been seen sporting the look and in 2009, Michelle Obama wore the Chain Link print wrap dress on the first Obama official White House Christmas card. But despite DvF being eponymous with the wrap dress, the style does, in fact, significantly predate her.
As early as 1929 Charles James, an English–American with a colourful backstory gave birth to what he called the “Taxi dress”. As a self-characterized “sartorial structural architect" James went on to become one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th Century. The fashion world owes him down jackets, bold shoulders, cocoon coats, flamboyant evening gowns and the very first sports bra, but it is his famed spiral zipped dress that is the object of my current musings. James considered the taxi dress, (dubbed as such because it was so easy to wear a woman could slip in and out of it in a cab), as one of his most important designs both commercially and artistically. The women of the day loved it. It seems that whilst we may have thought we invented free love in the 1960s, the Roaring 20s had it all figured out almost half a century earlier, but they just didn’t make quite so much noise about it. Women quietly liberating themselves from sartorial and societal shackles, sometimes, it seems, in the back of a taxi cab.
In 1942, more than a decade later, renowned designer Claire McCardell responded to a Harper's Bazaar challenge to create something fashionable that reflected the busy lifestyle women found themselves transitioned into during WW2. Enter the famed "Popover Dress" or to be more accurate, re-enter the famed… well you get the idea. Renamed, subtely reimagined but no less revolutionary for the women for whom it was designed. It went from garden cover up to something that women could pop over trousers or a swimsuit. One dress that could move seamlessly from cleaning the house to attending a cocktail party, a simple easy to wear style that worked for the new order of things. And once again the women of the day loved it for encapsulating and reflecting the reality of the multi-faceted lives they were now living. Women, once more, quietly liberating themselves.
Fast forward another 30 years to 1972 and the dissolution of the short marriage of DianeHalfin to Prince Egon von Fürstenberg. Instead of asking for alimony from her ex-husband, von Fürstenberg determined to make it on her own and armed with a suitcase full of Jersey fabric she moved to New York and began experimenting. In 1974 she introduced her now legendary signature Jersey wrap dress and the rest, as they say, is history. “Usually the fairy tale ends with the girl marrying the prince," von Fürstenberg once said. "But mine started as soon as the marriage was over."
Sometimes a single item can capture an entire movement. So it was with the wrap dress in 1974. The women’s movement was gathering momentum and the wrap dress became a symbol of all that the movement stood for, Femininity and Feminism all at once. Women now had a dress that achieved dual status as both comfortable business wear and elegant evening dress, suitable for, and a mark of, the changing roles of busy urban women in the 70’s. The wrap dress established a new liberating style movement for women around the globe and within two years DvF sales had reached five million. Almost half a century later not much has changed. Whilst not every woman owns a DvF original, almost all have a version of the style in their closet.
It is not difficult to see why the wrap dress is so popular. The tie waist accentuates a traditionally feminine aesthetic, while the adjustable V neckline is intended to give you full cleavage control. So, whether you’re short or tall, big- busted or small, you can, apparently, easily find a wrap dress that feels like it’s been made just for you. Or can you? Not all wrap dresses are created equally and many is the wardrobe malfunction that can befall the unprepared, often for the very same reason that the dress is so popular. The neckline may be adjustable but by its very nature it is fluid so it can all too easily decide to fall open showing your bra, or your age, or both. And whilst cinching and emphasizing your waist can work well, in so doing, the wrap dress can end up showing off a less than totally flat stomach so you may find yourself reaching for your Spanx in order to look good in the wrap. And then there is the skirt. Only the hardiest wrap dresser is prepared to step out on a breezy day, indubitably prepared to show the world their panties and control top hose.
There is undeniable sex appeal in a dress without buttons or zips but exactly which wrap dress you buy and how and when you wear it should be approached with some degree of caution. Carefully consider the fabric. A silk or satin wrap might feel wonderful but if the fabric has no purchase it will almost certainly prove hard to keep properly in place. Consider a faux wrap dress, one that resembles the classic design but is already fastened together with no opening in front and is slipped on over the head. And if you decide to go with the real thing, always have a couple of safety pins to hand, just in case.