Dressed to thrill: 100 years of frocks

The dress has had more makeovers than Madonna - and perhaps that's the secret of its success.

Steven Russell

The dress has had more makeovers than Madonna - and perhaps that's the secret of its success. Steven Russell finds out about all those fabulous frocks

TROUSERS and separates have launched repeated guerrilla raids on the nation's wardrobes but the dress still reigns supreme - and, listening to former fashionista Jane Eastoe, it's not hard to see why. “I love that feeling of the fabric, in summer, when you're going for a walk and the wind will blow your skirt around you and you can pretend you're some romantic heroine for a moment. You're not just someone walking the dog,” she sighs, wistfully. There's more. In recent times she's been busy co-writing a book called Fabulous Frocks; all that thought about clothes inspired her to make a lot of her own - something she hadn't really done since college days as a fashion designer. Jane added several

1950s-style home-made dresses to her rails. “What I discovered, which is absolutely enchanting, is that when you skip downstairs in a hurry your dress floats out around you like something out of a movie. And it's blissful. You get a peculiar pleasure just coming downstairs in a dress!”

Fascination with the frock has not gone away, even though the past century has seen radical changes of style, with hemlines swinging from ankle to thigh and outlines alternating between body-hugging and the bell. It's more than 80 years since Coco Chanel invented the little black dress, and now almost every woman has one hanging in the wardrobe. And the yearning to don a glamorous gown is also great.

So why has the dress endured?

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“You'll go through phases in fashion where the dress is more important than at other times. There will be times when you'll wear them and periods when you don't. What happens when the fashions swing back round and you start wearing them again is that one thing hits you: 'It's so easy!' You don't have to think about mixing the right T-shirt with the right cardigan with the right trousers with the right socks.

“It's one thing you put on and it's done: it's incredibly simple and easy, and it's usually pretty comfortable. So there's that basic, practical factor,” says Jane, 50, who trained in fashion design before moving to the fashion business press and interviewing designers from Gaultier to Galliano. Now she's something of an Earth Mother, having embraced (and written books about) home-grown fruit, vegetables and chickens.

“I also think, for women, dresses are the mark of special occasions in their lives. When you're younger, you have your party dress or the dress you pick to wear to your graduation . . . something you'll wear to someone else's 21st birthday party . . . or perhaps a dress you were wearing when you met the great love of your life. It's often an item of clothing that is very distinct.”

There have been bumpy times, though.

“You can get into all sorts of faintly feminist arguments. I think that for a long time, for instance, in the '80s - and the '90s to a point - dresses became very basic and sexual. They were short, they were tight. They were great if you were 18 and had a fantastic body, but for an awful lot of women they excluded you from that.

“And they were unsuitable for wearing to work. They were making such a strong sexual statement that if you were out there trying to be a career woman, forging your path, you felt much safer in a pair of trousers or a skirt and a blouse and a jacket. A dress somehow made quite a feminine statement that I think a lot of women became slightly uncomfortable with. They would put on a very slinky dress to go out in the evening, because they wanted to make an impact, but, that aside, it wasn't an item of clothing they could wear day to day.

“I think there's been an enormous change in culture. We've had women coming up who expect to have a career and feel they no longer have to dress slightly as a man. They can be more feminine and will still be regarded as able to do their job.”

TV programmes such as Friends, and particularly Sex and the City, have been wonderful for the dress, reckons Jane.

“Sex and the City is supposedly about sex, but it's not. It's actually about female friendship and clothes. They wanted these women to look fabulous. They kept putting them all in these fantastic dresses and I think they in part turned around this whole concept of what you could wear out and about. If you look now at the range of the offer that's in the shops, the dress is so important in fashion terms. Women are buying it. You can't make women wear something if they don't want to, and right now they are just rediscovering the dress and they absolutely love it.”

Jane's favourite era is probably the 1950s. “For dresses I don't think you can beat it. They're fantastically and beautifully feminine, with wonderful prints and colours, and they just float around you. For me, it feels a little bit like dressing up when I was a child: you put on one of those great big skirts and a petticoat and you feel a bit like you're dressing up and it's not real life, and I think that's rather a nice sensation.” The 50s also featured exquisitely-tailored dresses. “It could be very elegant and classical.”

Nowadays, some people regard the desire to appear feminine as politically incorrect, but Jane is convinced it's one of the styles that suits women best.

“There are a lot of women that cannot wear sexy dresses, because of their age or figure, or they just haven't got the chutzpah to carry it off. There are a lot of women who can't wear those perfectly-tailored classical dresses that Audrey Hepburn would look divine in, because basically you have to be as thin as a rake, really. But feminine dresses actually do suit most women. That would be my argument.”

Dresses are also something women tend to wear when they want to make an impression, she says. “You don't slop around the house in a dress. It's something you wear when you are really making a little bit of an effort.”

Jane, who after years living in London now calls the Kent coast home - “just about as far away from anywhere as you could be” - loves her frocks but admits retreating into trousers for winter. “But in summer I embrace dresses. They're my favourite thing to wear because of the simplicity. If you're a little cold you can put something on top; if you're a little warm, you can whip it off. And it's just so comfortable. I stride out, with some hearty footwear!”

Can she predict where dress trends might go?

“'No' is the short answer to that. I feel that what we haven't really had [again] is some of the '30s glamour. You could go from the vampish, satiny evening dresses through to some quite demure little tailored dresses. We've done a bit of the '20s but we haven't seen much of that. And we've done loads of the '50s, and a little bit of the '40s; and the '60s keeps, inevitably, coming round and round.”

The recession will inevitably have an impact on fashion. “I think what will actually boom in this market is accessories, because people will buy the bits and pieces; they'll buy the jewellery, they'll buy the shoes, they'll buy the bag - to give everything a lift. Apparently make-up always does terribly well in a recession - you buy it to change your look cheaply.”

There's already a surge in people making their own garments. “You can make yourself something in really quite good fabric that you could never afford to buy in the shops because it would be out of your price-range, and you can end up with a really good-quality piece of clothing.”

Jane adds: “People always say that skirts go up when times are good, although if you really do look at it scientifically it doesn't actually follow through! But I think, if you've got less money, it can go two ways. You're going to want to buy cheaper clothes, and one way of making clothes cheaper is by using less fabric; so you start to get into the wartime shapes: shorter skirts; simpler skirts. Everything is cut that bit leaner.

“Also, you have people genuinely wanting a bit of escapism because they're really fed-up with everything being gloomy, so what they want to do is go out and buy that red dress with the full-circle skirt. It just makes them feel good, and it makes people around them feel good, too.”

Sarah Gristwood and Jane Eastoe, authors of Fabulous Frocks (published by Pavilion at �25), look at 100 years of the dress and its enduring appeal during their Essex Book Festival talk at Braintree District Museum's Learning for Life Centre on March 12. Box office: 01206 573948. Web link: www.essexbookfestival.org.uk

1908-17: Paul Poiret's abolition of the corset signals the birth of modern fashion. In 1911 he introduces the hobble skirt. But the outbreak of the First World War sees a change in mood and 1915 brings the start of a trend for fuller, A-line skirts ending just above the ankle - more practical for women forced into the wartime workplace.

1918-27: In 1920 the hemline rises to an unprecedented three inches above the ankle and - with one brief return to ground level - continues to rise. In 1925 the waistline drops below the hips, and in 1927 it disappears altogether. Skirts reach just below the knee. Coco Chanel establishes herself as a couturier in 1919. “In 1925 she presents a high-necked, long-sleeved black frock which Vogue hails as the new wardrobe staple, the Little Black Dress. Paris is now dominated by female couturiers . . .”

1928-37: In the US Hattie Carnegie launches her first ready-to-wear collection in 1928; couture suffers in the wake of the Wall Street crash of 1929 and style takes on a more conservative tone. Hemlines drop back down to mid-calf for day wear, ground length for evening, and the waist resumes its proper place. Hollywood style becomes increasingly influential, especially its “more elaborate and overly seductive aspects. In 1932 Macy's sells a reputed half-million copies of the dress Joan Crawford wears in Letty Lynton. In 1937 the dress Mainbocher designs for the wedding of Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor is copied everywhere.”

1938-47: In 1939 the Paris collections feature fitted waists and crinoline skirts, just as Gone With the Wind comes out. “But the outbreak of World War II calls a halt to the movement, bringing in more masculine and practical designs . . . 1941 in Britain sees the first collection of fabric-saving 'Utility' clothes.”

1948-57: “The great couturiers dominate the decade, ringing the changes on the silhouette with almost every collection.” In 1951 Balenciaga shows a tent dress, in 1953 Dior introduces the 'Tulipe' line, and in 1954 Balenciaga presents the narrow I-shaped line and Dior the H-line, followed by the A-line and the Y-line. Beautiful cocktail and evening frocks are being created in Europe and the United States by people such as Balmain and Charles James. “But Balenciaga and his prot�g� Givenchy have also been developing versions of the less restrictive chemise and sack dresses.” The sudden death of Christian Dior in 1957 signals the end of an era. Several houses are eyeing the youth market; and in 1955, in London, Mary Quant opens her first boutique.

1958-67: Skirt lengths rise ever upwards and in 1965 Mary Quant's mini-dresses stop traffic on Times Square. New labels include St Laurent and Valentino (1962) and Jean Muir (1966). Style icons range from Jackie Kennedy to Twiggy, and influential films include Breakfast at Tiffany's.

1968-77: 1969 brings the Woodstock festival, leading to the hippy revolution, ethnic and vintage anti-fashion cultures. “Anything goes, from the shortest of skirts to the floor-skimming maxi. Thirties influences take a hold, led by Biba, as does the glam rock influence of pop. Halston introduces simple sexy-jersey dresses for the disco generation . . . the punk revolution startles London. Calvin Klein (1968), Ralph Lauren (1972) and Giorgio Armani (1975) launch womenswear lines . . .”

1978-87: Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler push Amazonian silhouettes with tight waits and mighty shoulders: a look popularised by TV soaps Dallas and Dynasty. Lady Diana marries Prince Charles in a fairytale frock. Gaultier launches own label in 1978 and shows conical bra dress in 1983.

1988-97: “The new breed of toned celebrity supermodel shows off slick, body-conscious and sexually provocative dresses. Evening dresses are back, as exemplified by the black lace Christina Stambolian 'take that' dress that Princess Diana dons in June 1994 . . . The film Pretty Woman sells the allure of the dress and Liz Hurley steals the limelight in Versace at the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral.”

1998-2007: The dress is back in the news, with 1950s and 1970s influences dominating. “Roland Mouret reintroduces the allure of the strict, tailored dress for day. Evening glamour moves up a notch and big dresses make a comeback . . . Julia Roberts wears vintage Valentino to collect her Oscar for Erin Brokovitch.”

Sourced from Fabulous Frocks, by Sarah Gristwood and Jane Eastoe