Forty years since Diane von Furstenberg unleashed her iconic wrap dress, her mantra (above) remains just as relevant
Words: Lauren Goldstein Crowe
Every so often, but perhaps not often enough, a fashion innovation comes along that fits so seamlessly into our lives that we can’t imagine a time when it wasn’t in our wardrobe. Sometimes that innovation is simply a new use of an old material — Coco Chanel used the cheap cotton jersey that had previously been reserved for men’s underwear to make dresses and jumpers; stockings produced from nylon instead of delicate silk in 1940 ensured hosiery became resilient.
Sometimes it is transforming something that was the unique property of men and reinterpreting it for women. Think of the Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo or Levi’s jeans. And sometimes it’s a whole new concept like the bikini, the mini skirt or the wrap dress. Created 40 years ago this year, Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap dress is an ingenious combination of cloth and shape. The concept of a wrap design was nothing particularly new; it’s a technique which is said to predate sewing and, of course, is how women still wear their clothes in many parts of the world. In the west, Dior made the idea high fashion in the Sixties and even von Furstenberg herself had used the wrap shape in tops. Cotton jersey, too, had been used as far back as the 1910s, when Chanel first set up shop. But by combining both, von Furstenberg managed to create a dress so chic, so functional, that it quickly reached iconic status.
To say the dress, in all its pretty patterns, was a smash success when it first came out is an understatement. Within two years of its launch in 1974, von Furstenberg, who was then 28, had sold five million dresses (20,000 a week) and had appeared on the cover of Newsweek and the front page of the Wall Street Journal; by 1977, von Furstenberg estimated that her business was worth $100m. “When they put me on the cover of Newsweek knew it was something,” von Furstenberg tells Stylist.
“In the beginning I travelled all over and saw women in the wrap dress. I could always tell the way a woman responded [to wearing it] and I knew that it was a very powerful thing. But I still had no idea it would become such a phenomenon.” Women across the US from sex symbols like Cybill Shepherd who wore one in Taxi Driver to feminists like Gloria Steinem picked up on its sex appeal and its uncanny ability to be universally flattering. It was, in essence, the perfect dress for the newly liberated post-war woman.
To understand how a cotton dress can make such an impact, it helps to understand women in the Seventies. Yes, there was disco and all that went with it. Yes, von Furstenberg was one of the icons of the time, wife of an Italian prince (Prince Egon von Furstenberg), daughter to the heiress to the Fiat fortune, and hanging out with Andy Warhol while generally looking fabulous. But far more important to the success of the dress was the fact that women were going into full-time employment in unprecedented numbers; in America the pace of women entering the workforce after 1950 tripled. My mother, newly employed as a management consultant in suburban Maryland, was one of them.
“No-one seemed to know what to wear at that point,” she explained. “One of the guys in the office had a denim suit with cowboy fringe. And then there was the disco thing with polyester everything. Clothes were unlined, untailored.” Newly married, living in New York and spending her nights with Loulou de La Falaise (Yves Saint Laurent’s muse), von Furstenberg couldn’t have had a more different life than my mother. But even from this privileged vantage point, she could recognise the problems affecting regular women.
“I had no focus groups, no marketing surveys, no plan. All I had was an instinct that women wanted a fashion option besides hippie clothes, bell-bottoms and stiff pantsuits that hid their femininity… The dresses made sense. They were sexy and practical,” she wrote in her 1998 autobiography, Diane, A Signature Life. “There were very few businesswomen at the time, and the few in management tended to play down their gender by dressing more like men than like women.
For me, however, flaunting my femininity had always given me an advantage, even a weapon. It gave me the opportunity to charm, to be light and fun and seductive.” “Fun and seductive” however, doesn’t equate to success in every occupation, then or now. As a young lawyer working in New York in the late Sixties, Lady Barbara Judge, now Chairman of the UK’s Pension Protection Fund, wore crocheted mini-dresses to the office before a colleague told her, “You’re too smart to look that stupid.” Quickly she created her own uniform: blue suit, white shirt, hair up in a bun. But come the mid-Seventies, in the evenings, the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress would come out. “I didn’t think it looked like what a lawyer should wear; I thought it looked like a date dress.” And on Friday nights in Manhattan she’d see legions of women in them. But it was never a fashion disaster. “Because they came in so many different prints, it really didn’t matter. I never saw anyone in the same print as mine,” Judge says.
Feel like a woman
“It was just a masterstroke of timing,” explains fashion historian Bronwyn Cosgrave. “Diane’s life made it seem glamorous, although what women really loved was its functionality.” The design empowered women without compromising their femininity. “It allowed women to go to work and still feel like a woman,” reveals von Furstenberg. “I scribbled a little something on a white cube in one of my first ads and it is still true today: ‘Feel like a woman, wear a dress.’ Your most authentic self is always your most powerful self.”
What made the Diane von Furstenberg version of the wrap dress different than the ones that had come before was mostly its plunging neckline – a detail that made it instantly sexy if not a bit treacherous to wear (my mother and I both pinned ours to keep it together. Von Furstenberg herself used long, chunky necklaces to similar, but infinitely chicer, effect). The combination of showing a lot of chest, tight sleeves and generous skirt made just about everyone look sexy. It brought attention to the breasts and away from the stomach in women who were more Rubenesque; yet drew attention to the flat stomachs and narrow hips of slimmer women.
But what everyone seems to remember most fondly was the fabric. Being a jersey knit, it was soft and comfortable. It didn’t wrinkle even after long sittings or when folded into a suitcase. And von Furstenberg knew the fabric was key. “The fabric was the most important. When women tried on the dresses, it was the feel of the cotton-and-rayon blend that really sold them. So did the look. What made the dresses special was that they looked like nothing on the hangers, but were so flattering on. You wore the clothes, the clothes didn’t wear you – which was rare at the time.”
The wide variety of prints was also critical. It ensured that no matter how many dresses she sold, everyone felt unique in their chosen design. She was inspired first by the colourful cotton print T-shirts she saw on chic Europeans when on holiday in the south of France. Flowers, foliage, geometry, bamboo — anything and everything influenced her prints. “I was inspired by nature with the twig prints – inspiration came from women, nature, art, my travels…” she explains. When stumped for ideas one season, she seized on the idea of animals and the streets of New York were alive with snakes and leopards.
To create a hit once is one thing. What makes the wrap dress really stand out – and worthy of its own exhibition (The Journey Of A Dress, at the Wiltshire May Company Building in Los Angeles until 1 April, 2014) – is that, even when the polish wore off the design towards the end of the Seventies, von Furstenberg managed to make it a hit again, 24 years later.
By 1978, the market for her dresses was saturated. Stores slashed prices, production came to a halt; von Furstenberg sold the business and focused on her line of cosmetics. It was in the mid-Nineties when Rose Marie Bravo, creative director of Saks Fifth Avenue, noticed that increasing numbers of women in New York were wearing vintage dresses they’d taken from their mothers or bought from charity shops. As a fledgling fashion journalist, I was among them. The publishers of Women's Wear Daily and W magazine had recently employed me to cover fashion for a newly launched AOL site Style Channel. My bosses had both been to Harvard and, as a rule, our team had been hired for brains, not fashion acumen. Being sent to cover the collections was, sartorially speaking, a terrifying prospect. I got by with the usual default of all black, but it wasn’t until I pulled out my mother’s Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress that I received any compliments from my peers.
By 1997, Bravo convinced von Furstenberg to get back in business. The wrap was reborn, thinner, sleeker, and more expensive than before. Where it had been made in Italy from cotton during the Seventies, it was now to be made from silk in China. But the appeal remained. Matches co-founder Ruth Chapman had lunch with von Furstenberg in London after her husband Tom saw the dresses in New York in 1997. “Tom met her and was enthralled,” she said. “I was intimidated by her presence but came to appreciate her energy, dynamism and wisdom.” Matches was the first UK retailer to sell the new wrap dress in 1998. “All the girls wanted them and it very quickly became a best seller,” said Chapman. “Our store was too small for all the inventory”.
As a result, she and Tom partnered with von Furstenberg to open the first Diane von Furstenberg store outside New York – in Notting Hill. They now operate four stores in the UK, selling Diane von Furstenberg designs to a different generation but to the same wide variety of women who bought them before – party girls to professionals; everyone, short, tall, smaller or larger seems to have a fondness for the wrap. Pip Chawner, a personal stylist based in East Dulwich says, “It’s a dress I can pick out for most body shapes. The fashionable colours make even my most conservative clients look on-trend, and my most difficult clients happy. It’s not just a dress – it’s a solution.”
For 40 years it’s been making women feel attractive, comfortable and feminine – allowing them to express themselves in clothes explicitly designed for women by a woman. So how would von Furstenberg herself feel about the dress being considered a feminist icon? “I feel great about that,” she says. “Right now, with the exhibition in LA, we are celebrating the journey of that dress, and it’s really about the journey of the woman. That is the most important thing."