Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Manhattan Mati Haris

Diane von Furstenberg's signature dress debuted in 1973, but it wasn't until half a decade later that the jersey wrap revolutionized the wardrobe of the Middle American working woman.

The turning point occurred when von Furstenberg overstock appeared on the racks of America's discount chains. It didn't matter if the dresses were two years out of date and it didn't matter that they weren't von Furstenberg's cleverest prints. What was crucial was that they were being sold for $35.00 and had an honest-to-God designer label. The dresses helped the discounters promote their stores as credible retail destinations for women with more ambition than cash. Marshalls took full advantage of the wrap dresses, working them into their "Never pay full price" television commercials.

The fashion-and-budget-conscious consumer already knew the dress. She was also starrily aware of von Furstenberg's title and her membership in the international jet set.

From the late 1800s through the beginning of the 20th century, it was customary for the daughters of wealthy American industrialists to marry impoverished, titled foreigners in an exchange that raised the family's public image and social currency. The families that comprised what was then known as "The 400" suffered an image problem both at home and abroad that they aggressively sought to eradicate. In many instances, the dynasty had its origins in rough stock that its descendants repudiated by means of nobly brokered matrimony.

In addition, a fierce competition over social standing took place among the nouveau riche families of the insular "400" society. A primary example of a successful barter occurred when Consuelo Vanderbilt was forced to marry Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough. The Duke got cash, the Vanderbilts bested the Astors, and the American public got their very own Duchess. These so-called "brilliant" alliances fomented an opinion that Europeans were culturally superior beings.

Seventy-odd years later, the supersonic Concorde shortened the distance between Paris and New York to a mere three-and-a-half hours. The American fashion and society media aggressively documented the jet-setters' stateside lifestyles in W, Vogue, and The New York Times. The popular coverage resulted in a renewed hunger for status and in the beginning of the designer-label craze.

The impact of Belgian-born von Furstenburg's wrap dress upon a culture hungry for prestige cannot be underestimated. Finished with a shirt's collar and cuffs, the dress was suitable for the workplace when worn under a blazer and with a simple change of accessories was still dressy enough for dinner. It was designed to the exact point where it could stop and still retain its character. By 1979, the dress had become the status symbol of the nation's secretarial pool.

The appearance of the dress at Marshalls occurred at precisely the same time that the first wave of designer mania swept across America.

The basic dress worked on many emotional and physical levels. The dress enhanced the body without unnecessary furbelow and the label carried the presumption of class. It became the must-have item of the middle class even as its designer sought to improve it and keep it relevant on Seventh Avenue. Perhaps most importantly, it allowed the wearer to depict a desired individual reality while staying within the norms of acceptable sumptuary convention.

Following the long run of that bellwether garment, von Furstenberg watched as her original business dried up and her status as adopted American royalty landed her a gig at that most democratic of American retail institutions, QVC. By 1997, the original wrap design was old enough to be seen as classic vintage. It was on the backs of young, vintage remixers that the dress reappeared in fashion consciousness. Von Furstenberg then returned to designing apparel and in what might be called a very Darwinian way adapted the dress to the needs of the millennium woman. Evolved in this manner, the dress enjoyed nearly another decade of fashion sostenuto.

Fall 2008 sees the dress wholly returned to the closet. Working with a Dietrich inspiration, von Furstenberg created a pre-jet set narrative of Manhattan Mata Haris and the wardrobe they might need for various foreign intrigues.

Espionage, we learned, can be accomplished without a wrapped waist.

At this point in her career, von Furstenberg's stepping away from the signature element seems slightly more important than the collection itself. The wrap design is eternally flattering, but its iconic status had become a limitation. To mine the same seam this season would have been a mistake.

Von Furstenburg may have left the wrap dress in the archives, but the collection did not reflect this step towards modernization. Both apparel and models suggested that the designer continues to realize her original customer, a glossy woman who thirty years ago wrapped herself in the pale lilac aura of 1970s café society. Due to the Gen X fascination with the pale and the emaciated, the stronger cosmetic statement seemed almost adversarial, as if proclaiming to fashion's new prophets the need to bifurcate gender.

There were only two marginal pieces: a gold lame dress too readily recalled the glut of that material in the 1980s and a flapper dress had heavy chevron adornment to thank for its descending shapelessness.

The collection's real accomplishment was a baby step towards rejuvenating the meaning and pertinence the designer had in 1973, without taking the orthodoxy of the wrap into consideration. A question looms: Why do we demand total self-transcendence?

It's a long way back from QVC, but this is the year to reclaim former glory even as the attempt fell a bit short of another dies Solis.

Images: Style.com


Bobble Bee said...

knock knock i'm back!
i'm so glad to see your name in this year fashion blogger award, you really deserve it S. ! :)

ready to come back to our long email's exchange...

it's funny how fashion facts happen...the fact that DVF iconic item became popular due to its "unpopularitation"in the market and therefore mass "sales" years later... it is something that makes you really think.

Suzanna Mars said...

Great to see you again, Patricia! I was just wondering how it was going--been checking your blog and hoping you got into a few shows.

Thanks for the kudos, dear. I was taken aback by that nomination, since I am so new.

The wrap dress is also interesting because it debuted in a decade of some truly egregious trends and managed to ride out the decade without blemish or even cliche.

riz said...

I confess, I haven't seen the collection yes, but I truly like this review. You articulate everything I am skeptical about when I see DVF consumed and consigned.

Isn't it heaven to be blogging the collections side by side?? I was so looking forward to reading all your reviews for the Fall shows. I am giddy just thinking about all the shows to come!

(My skepticism falls by the wayside during fashion week =)

Blue Floppy Hat said...

I've never been a particular fan of the wrap dress, but- well written, Suzanna! Though the Americans- marrying-royals etc thing has been richly parodied by Wodehouse etc, I never quite realised just how real it was. Actual barter of girls for titles..

Suzanna Mars said...

BFH, that wrap dress covered a multitude of secretarial sins, including the famous secretarial spread. One worn the dress with Underalls and sensible, low-heeled pumps. Costume jewelry, too!

Suzanna Mars said...

Riz, I lost your comment on blogger so I copied it from my mail.

I confess, I haven't seen the collection yes, but I truly like this review. You articulate everything I am skeptical about when I see DVF consumed and consigned.

Isn't it heaven to be blogging the collections side by side?? I was so looking forward to reading all your reviews for the Fall shows. I am giddy just thinking about all the shows to come!

(My skepticism falls by the wayside during fashion week =)

Suzanna Mars said...

Riz, I am playing a game with myself trying to figure out what you will write about. I guessed right with Rag and Bone, but that was pretty obvious. I am headed to your blog now--Preen?

Even with all these shows, not all stand out. There were some I definitely intended to write about, and then there were some in which there was no response. And if you don't react, what can you say? Blah?

Bobble Bee said...

i "got" into some shows but "missed" them because of my shooting... :(
Fortunately there's still some to come, tomorrow the first i will be able to attend, Patrik Rzepski... let's see

riz said...

I am usually 1 day behind with reviews since I have to take 1 day just to process...

I love your game! I think I do the same though I would never have guessed DVF. I actually was terribly disappointed with Preen. WTF happened? I think they tried to pull a Christopher Kane this season and make a drastic change. Well, it didn't work out at all for them. They should have stuck to their unique variety of bodycon.

when i don't like collections, i simply don't write about them, unless i have something pointed to say - like Wang. Huge disappointment, along with Preen, Jeremy Laing, Herchcovitch,Ohne Titel.

Oh, and yes, it's 3am and I'm so wired virtually talking to you about the shows...anyway, you'll have to guess again, because it won't be Preen. =)

Suzanna Mars said...

Riz, you know my fondness for..well, I won't give you ANY hints for tomorrow.

I hate to say this, but I liked Obando. Huh? I have nothing to say about it other than that it had the highest representation of things I would wear than any other. My style is VERY spare and clean. I look awful with detail of any sort and wrong with trends.
That said, I see things from Braganza that I could wear and some others--there was a suit Mahret posted that I just adored, and then Herchcovitch had something, a black silk dress with print that was made by the print and not by the design.

But since I hardly think my own spare style is worthy of discussion, neither were the items that I liked from these collections.

I will have a look and guess again, keeping in mind your time lag, your critical mind, and what I have intuited from previous posts.

Suzanna Mars said...

Patricia, you are a girl on the go! I don't know how you do it. Please post a report on the shows you do get into. You are my eyes!

WendyB said...

Personally, I think a wrap dress emphasizes all my worst qualities. I'm always impressed by people who actually look good in them (rather than those who just think they look good in them).

Suzanna Mars said...

But WB, you have the cutest figure!

Wraps looked good on me because I have a small waist and wide shoulders. But I'm also quite tall. DvF also made boat-necked sheaths that were very flattering!

Thomas said...

I may have missed this, but why are they called "The 400?" (THIS...IS...FURSTENBERG!)

We found a wrap dress of this lineage in a vintage store in New York...I should have bought it for her.

Suzanna Mars said...

Thom, at the turn of the 20th century there were about 400 members of New York society.

You should've scooped up that dress!

jennine said...

personally, i didn't know about dvf until it made it to marshalls! ok ok that was pre-fashionblogging days.

but yeah, i've never been able to do the wrap dress successfully either.
(beautiful article)

Suzanna Mars said...

I find the comments from WB and Jennine interesting. Neither one can wear the wrap dress.

What physical features make for a successful wrap-wearing? Height or shape?

K.Line said...

IMO, much of wearing a wrap is about attitude, but I'm inclined to think that a shorter woman with a proportionately narrow waist and wider hips pulls it off most easily. Great thing about the style is that, even if you have
rather large breasts, you can still wear it well by pulling on a cami underneath. Altogether slimming on well-proportioned (if slightly less svelte)women. Just my thoughts, K

enc said...

I'm probably the only woman in the US who "can't" wear the wrap dress. On the surface, it seems perfect for me, because it imparts a waist on my boyish frame, and the shape and cut would ostensibly balance out my shoulders. However, it doesn't work. I keep longing to be able to wear one, and I never can stomach myself in one.

I do have one fabulous DVF dress, which isn't a wrap, but has some of that feel, with ruching and layering and wrapping. I feel a million dollars in it, and it's a timeless style.

DVF will find the way someday soon. Maybe not today, but soon.

(Thank you very much for putting me on your list, by the way.)

Suzanna Mars said...

k. line, thanks for your observations! I agree about the body shape, but as far as height, I'm a tree. Of course, when I wrote the post I was referring to the original wrap and not to any later models that might have had details I disliked or fabrics that weren't as smoothing.

enc, that makes three of you, and you are in terrific company with Wendy and Jennine!

Anonymous said...

It pains me to scan the titles and introductory words of these reviews and then to have to tear myself from the computer to return to study.

I look forward to poring over the mass of wondrous editorial you've produced next week!


Suzanna Mars said...

Thanks, DCB!

Studying comes first! I can't stand in the way of your career in journalism!