10 Aug 2012

When is a Dress… More than a Dress?

When it becomes a message written in silk, cotton and thread… according to Veronica Horwell who writes for the Intelligent Life magazine. This idea intrigued me and the more I thought about it… the more I thought she had a point. Dresses can change lives… or in the broader scheme.. fashion can shock, it can push, pull and poke at the the rules until expectations and norms shift gear.

Think about Horwell’s examples… illustrated beautifully by Andrew Archer…  Scarlett O’ Hara, dressed in emerald velvet and begging Rhett Butler for $300 to pay her taxes on Tara… a desperate plan, where her wits and her dress were her only recourse. Next is Liz Hurley, Versace and those very sexy safety pins that single handedly launched her career… Celia Birtwell’s print wedding dress from 1969… floral, hippy and completely anti-establishment… this gown represented the turbulence of the late ’60’s… And Marilyn  Monroe… ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’… that dress won’t be forgotten and nor will she.

Charles James’s ‘Four -Leaf Clover’, worn to the coronation ball in London by Austine Hearst in 1953… her dress, so sensational by all accounts with it’s 7kg skirt of silk and velvet, overshadowed the Queen… or at least took up more floorspace… In 1942 Claire McCardell designed the ‘popover dress’ in response to the demand for a wartime outfit that was inexpensive and practical. This wrap around dress sold at just under $7 and was ingenious… timeless…. the DVF wrap of it’s day. Yves Saint Laurent created the ultimate poster for modernism with his Mondrian shift and Virginie Gautreau aka Madame X (artist, John Singer Sargent christened her this) shocked society with this simple gown in 1883. Singer Sargent persuaded her to pose in this dress for her portrait… without wrap….. without gloves… it was a great scandal and reputations were ruined… But a magnificent dress it was and a dress that we would consider tame by today’s standards.

Dresses… change lives, launch careers, ruin careers… a clever designer can do so much more than clothe the body. What dresses do you think changed society or at least altered perceptions? I was thinking Twiggy and the mini… Jackie Kennedy… and her shifts… For a little insider inspiration the Design Museum has put together a superb collection.

Fifty Dresses that Changed the World… here

For European readers you can find it… here

To download the free app, ‘Intelligent Life’ click… here

Have a happy Friday… xv


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Janelle McCulloch

It’s not a glamorous image, but I’ll never forgot Jackie Kennedy wearing her blood-stained pink Chanel suit after her husband was assassinated. She refused to take it off for hours, all through the identification of the body and even the swearing-in of the new president. She said: “I want them to see what they have done”. When I read that, I had a whole new level of respect for her. That’s certainly fashion making a statement.


What a lovely post, and oh how so very true it is!

It also strikes me how much what we put on changes us, changes how we view the world, and changes how we view our place in the world.

Well done Vicki !


I’ve been trying to get myself here for weeks sweetie, so this morning I set myself a goal & woo hoo I’m glad I have! It’s Friday night, the end of another monster of a working week, the fire is blazing, dinner’s done & dusted & MOTH’s snoring loudly on the other end of the sofa with puppy Lulu draped all over him. All is well with the world. Have loved catching up on all your holiday in the sun posts, hope you are doing heaps of lazing around with Mr.FF & the kids.

It’s probably not in the Fifty Dresses book, but I’ll always remember the chic white dress Sonia McMahon wore to The White House on her trip to the US with Billy Big Ears. Oh la la…. all that exposed thigh & all the tut tutting from the Washington matrons that went with it. Loved her chutzpah on the global stage. RIP Sonia.
Millie xx


That dress is one I will always remember… and Sonia too… she was a marvellous woman… and supremely stylish always… xv

david terry

Wow….thank you, Vicki…..you’ve just given me freedom-from-shopping (I loathe shopping). I now know exactly what I’m going to give several of my female friends for Christmas.

I’ve also just bookmarked this Andrew Archer’s site/blog. Now, HE’S the sort of artist who intimidates me…..how can anyone who’s not Japanese convey so much with just a few bold strokes? It’s the exact opposite of my own fussy, over-belabored “style”, and I’m honest enough to recognize that his sort of work is INFINITELY more difficult to do. I’ll look forward to going through his portfolio.

As for Madame X’s dress? There’s a very thorough account of the scandale in David McCullough’s 2011, very fine & fascinating book “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris”, which gives an account of the flood of American expatriates in Paris from 1830-1900.

I didn’t previously know that he’d originally painted the picture with one of the dress’s shoulder-straps dangling down around Mme. Gautreau’s bare arm. Amidst the initial, horrified hububb, Sargent simply painted the strap back ON her shoulder. Even this, though, didn’t do much towards making the picture “respectable”.

Nor did I know that the main reason for folks’ being so scandalized (or at least the reason most often cited in reviews) was the lady’s penchant for powdering her entire face and body with unmistakably pale-lavender talc-powder…..so that she appeared by gaslight to be more-or-less dead.

As for “dresses that changed the world”?….my nomination would be any of the several hundred “grecian tunics” that Isadora Duncan and her brother designed and sewed-up for her dance-recitals in the 1920’s…..ethereal, floating, gauze-y things (under which she wore nothing more constricting than a bodystocking and with which she never wore shoes). Audiences were half-scandalized and half-mesmerized…and all sorts of women (who were growing tired of strapping themselves into corsets and sitting around in their drawing-rooms) began adapting Duncan’s “look” (which carried an irreproachably “artistic” air, rather than seeming merely skimpy/disreputable). Next thing you knew?….half of Mayfair was wearing those little, Daisy Buchanan, 20’s cocktail dresses and breathing a lot less laboriously.

well, thanks for another invigorating posting.

—-david terry (who is a notoriously haphazard dresser)


Thank goodness for Isadora Duncan… i am glad you enjoyed Archer’s site… I thought his illustrations quite fabulous… xv

Francine gardner

I am fascinated by history through fashion and your post is so on point. At times, my mood changes by simply putting a dress on… facing a difficult moment? let’s dress up, feeling young and happy…let’s wear a crazy dress… i remember the moment when I set eyes on Madame X… an extraordinary painting.

Teresa @ Splendid Sass

I love this post, and thank you for sharing. What we wear can change everything around us and be totally liberating. There is a lot to think about here.
Have a great weekend.


I have traveled with you over the last several posts, enjoyed every one. Thank You. These dresses do indeed define a spirit, invoke a memory,and remind us all to “dress up” now and then. Current fashion (at least in the US) is what I refer to as Throw On Style. What I see is sloppy, ill fitting and sad. I will not go on and on, but there is always hope when I see these.


Vicki, am I breaking the rules by popping a reply in here???

Corinne, I just had to say I am very very very very much in agreeance with your Throw On Style comment. I too am soooo over the sloppy, ill fitting clothes found in stores…and the sad part is that previously if you were prepared to pay a little more you could get quality…that’s not the case anymore. Here in Australia expensive & cheap stores all only offer the same rubbish.

For me Vicki, it’s a blast from the past with “Mary” of Downton Abbey wearing some breath-taking dresses.


Great post and wonderful illustrations.
The image of Lady Diana wearing the short strapless black cocktail dress to an event stands out in my mind. It was on the night that Charles’ TV interview about his relationship with Camilla aired.
Diana was beaming and it was her walking away {from him} frock.

Garden, Home and Party

What a thought provoking post. All that said, it’s the flair, in my opinion, with which the person wearing the dress has that stops people in their tracks. There is nothing more beautiful that a confident woman. Designers can provide the garment but the wearer has to deliver the style.
One of my favorite outfits was the simple outfit Sharon Stone wore to the Golden Globes or Academy Awards, black and from some off the rack store, but she carried it off with such style and beauty.


As I recall important events in my life, it seems I was usually wearing a dress!
Great, thought provoking post. Dresses are so much simpler to wear…just one thing to choose, and yet most of my friends don’t wear them regularly. I always feel more put-together in a dress.
*Marilyn Monroe in that fabulous white halter dress in “Some Like It Hot”, standing over the subway grate is…stunning.


Just looked at Andrews link…what a clever fellow.
Then clicked over and bought kindle version of the 50 dresses book…Marilyn’s white halter dress is right up front. I needed something new to read. Thanks for the tip.

david terry

Oh, Marsha….you’re right, sort of. Recall the dresses in the movie of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”?

The only “problem” is that most women had the good sense to know that they better NOT wear something Taylor had worn in a film….comparisons would inevitably be made.

Once she got fat, though, Taylor did do an awful lot towards making kaftans and dangling-eearings (not just-for-night anymore!) cool…..

—david terry

Mary Jo

Vicki, I love your new format on the blog! I am a huge Charles James fan, and can read about him endlessly. I also love Alexander McQueen and Vivian Westwood for what they did with the dress. But the one I wear again and again is DVF, so she has probably had the most impact on my dress life. Love this post!

xo Mary Jo

Ingrid Mida

Dear Vicki, This is a post that is close to my heart as my thesis research relates to the embodiment of memory in clothing. Beyond celebrity dresses and couture pieces, many women have dresses in the back of their closet that remind them of a special event or time in their life and it is those memories that imbue a dress with meaning.
I love those illustrations – so bold and free.
Another great post Vicki. Thanks.


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