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A dress for all cities – Diane von Furstenberg: Journey of a Dress

Portrait of Diane von Furstenberg by Andy Warhol
Portrait of Diane von Furstenberg by Andy Warhol
Diane von Furstenberg, Andy Warhol

Call it a wrap-around show for the Wrap Dress. I just capitalized that – did you notice? Can we just give credit where credit is due here? There’s a reason why she’s been an icon since the mid-1970s. She came to New York a princess; but had already paid some serious dues en route. While the Beautiful People were dressing-as-usual at Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, (Halston of course) and (let me guess) Chloé, YSL/Rive Gauche, Sonia Rykiel, Missoni (am I close?), Diane von Furstenberg took her deep knowledge of fabrics and dress-cutting and made it her business to make over her princess silhouette for the New York working girl. In its own way, the DVF wrap dress was probably as revolutionary as Madeleine Vionnet’s bias cut. More so: it was cut, pattern, construction – the whole package. It flattered a girl’s body in a similar fashion, was versatile and adaptable to a range of body types, used pattern imaginatively to ‘rhyme’ with the silhouette, to move with the body, was easy to accessorize, and transitioned almost effortlessly from day to evening. (Okay – I’m thinking there was probably some effort involved in refreshing the maquillage in those early years. Most of us wouldn’t bother these days.)

The dress became a work uniform, the alternative to the skirt suit and more particularly, what was becoming an increasingly generic and almost formless garment – the pants suit. It was as if the pants suit in most mass incarnations was simply everything a man’s suit was not. It was also utterly without distinction and almost without shape. I’m speaking in very general terms. If you could afford it, of course you could have something custom-tailored to your requirements. But in terms of what might be had straight off a rack, it was as if its unspoken message was to deny a woman’s shape. Yes – we were by all means going to wear exactly what we wanted; but it was almost as if – having fully claimed our bodies and space in the world, having asserted ourselves as every bit men’s equal in any working situation – some of us felt compelled on some level to deny or set to one side the physical actuality of our bodies; as if in asserting our equality, we might be compelled to deny or ignore our differences. The DVF wrap dress became a gesture of reclaiming one’s body-identity at work. There was a time when it seemed like every girl had at least one and possibly several.

Okay some of us were moving in a very different direction then. The original promotion for the prototype wrap dress went something like: “Feel like a woman. Wear a dress.” For some of us, this sounded like a distinct step backward. This was not what the feminist second wave had been all about. Our futures were not going to be about what we were wearing, but what we were doing. Gee – wasn’t that what Diana Vreeland herself had dictated?

And there were probably quite a few of us who were thinking, ‘Really?’ ‘I was sort of thinking maybe just making my pants, uh, skinnier; and/or maybe going a bit leather with my look.’ Or – ‘how can I rip this up a bit; maybe accessorize with a few pins or some heavier metal.’ Or maybe just moving in another direction entirely. (Believe it or not, Rei Kawakubo was starting what would eventually become Comme des Garçons around the same time.) But for many women looking for first jobs, just trying to find our way in the world, this was really not an option. And really for most of us, it was ultimately about expanding our options. It was as easy as a suit or, alternatively, jeans and T-shirt or sweater, attractive, and – most important – affordable. This was a work uniform with a difference – a uniform in which we could be ourselves. (Yes – even with foot-high purple hair.)

What made it even easier was von Furstenberg’s fabric-savvy. It was as if she had sponged up every last bit of Euro-American culture and the contemporary urban environment – fine art, graphics, media, the rhythm of the city and the way we lived and worked. The fabrics – with their bold graphics, animal, or biomorphic, or stylized abstract prints – and the way the dress moved, responded to the way people moved and worked in the city. They had impact without overwhelming the wearer or the on-looker. Von Furstenberg understood the dynamic down to the city’s DNA.

Of course she moved on – with dresses, sportswear, separates, accessories; and so did we; but versatility has been the hallmark of her label throughout its double run. (I think, for example, of a style of tunic dressing she put her own tailored stamp on, among many other styles.) She has a flair for what she would call the “yin and yang” of fashion – that uncanny balance between casual and dressy, the business-like yet relaxed, the geometric and the biomorphic, the matte and the shiny. She knows how to walk a dress the way some people walk in nothing at all – it’s just second nature. You see it in her runway shows of the last decade – the consistent enthusiasm, the sense of something there for everyone, and the buyers getting excited. Everyone goes home (or to the next show) happy.

The show, Diane von Furstenberg: Journey of a Dress, opens today at LACMA-West (appropriately, the former May Co. department store space), installed as if in inter-locking mirrored lozenges (not unlike some of the patterns themselves), endlessly reflecting a thousand incarnations of the dress that thousands of women wore to their first jobs or first nights out. Except they’re not reflections – they’re the actual dresses. It looks as if the curators of the show pulled the dress in every fabric and pattern it was made. The pedestals and surrounding walls and floors are similarly wrapped in the animal/biomorphic and geometric/abstract patterns that have always been her signature. Whether for a walk back into the past, or to scout out future style horizons, I encourage you to ‘walk’ the wrap dress for yourself sometime between this week-end and April 1st.

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