Sometimes a dress is more than just a dress.
The wrap dress is a seemingly simple silhouette on the surface, yet it’s enduringly fashion forward, figure flattering and forgiving! It’s been around for decades (or even centuries, depending upon whom you ask) and has become synonymous with Belgium-born New York-based designer Diane von Furstenberg, who popularized it with her take on the wrap introduced 40 years ago.
The fabled frock is front-and-center once again. It’s the subject of the exhibit “Journey of a Dress” that closes Thursday in Los Angeles and features vintage and contemporary designs by Ms. von Furstenberg, along with portraits of her by Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger, Chuck Close, Francesco Clemente, Helmut Newton and Annie Leibovitz. It also includes stills of the wrap dress on the silver screen, adorning Cybill Shepherd in “Taxi Driver” and Amy Adams in “American Hustle.”
The DVF wrap dress also commemorated its birthday with a glitzy “wrapsody”-themed runway show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York in February and a limited-edition collection of “Pop Wrap” dresses inspired by Warhol with bright colors and bold prints (available at www.dvf.com). The public was invited to take part in the celebration by sharing their stories and photos about job interviews, first dates and other memorable moments when they wore the dress of the hour.
“It is really all about the woman,” Ms. von Furstenberg said in an email interview with the Post-Gazette. “When it is on the hanger, it looks like nothing, but when a woman slips into it, something incredible happens. That is what has kept it relevant for all of these years.”
Ms. von Furstenberg was in her 20s when she debuted it. Prior to that she had made wrap tops reminiscent of the coverup wrap sweaters commonly worn by ballerinas and paired them with matching wrap skirts.
“I saw them together and thought, ‘Why not make it into a dress?’ So that is what I did,” she said. “It was really revolutionary at the time. Other designers were making these elaborate dresses. Everything was so complicated. I just set out to design an easy little dress that I could throw into a suitcase and wear anywhere, and it turned out to be exactly what women wanted at that time.”
She unveiled it at a period when “all the stars were in alignment,” in terms of women’s fashion wants, its fabrication, varying lengths and eye-catching prints, said Kathlin Argiro, an adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and a fashion designer with her own label since 1997. “It’s the ultimate dress, hands down.”
In the new book “The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish” ($28.99; Basic Books), author Linda Przybyszewski said part of the DVF wrap dress’ initial appeal was as an alternative to pantsuits. It was easy to wear and wash and sensual, thanks to the V-neck and the tie wrap.
It was a hit from the start, Ms. von Furstenberg said, adding that fashion editor and columnist Diana Vreeland “loved them.”
“I knew that was a good sign.”
A spot on the cover of Newsweek further legitimized the look.
“So many women wore that dress that I would count them walking up and down Park Avenue,” she said. “I was a European princess living the American dream.”
But the wrap dress’s roots go back more than 40 years. Some could argue that they can be traced to ancient Egypt, said Michael Gainey, an adjunct professor for The Art Institute of Pittsburgh’s fashion programs. Pretty much anything in fashion can be linked back to earlier eras, Ms. Argiro said.
Many fashion historians credit early interpretations of the wrap dress (then called a popover dress) to American designer Claire McCardell in the 1930s and ’40s. This look was based upon wrap-style designs by Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Another iteration that predates these is the 1920s taxi dress by Charles James, who’s the subject of an exhibit opening May 8 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Ms. von Furstenberg drew inspiration for print and color for her wrap dress from Emilio Pucci, she said, and its sense of “effortlessness and playing to a woman’s body was informed by Halston.”
Designers past and present adding their own twist to the wrap helps keep the dress relevant and caters to varying tastes and needs. For instance, Ms. Argiro added wrap dresses to her collection because she felt there was a need for ones that provided more coverage up top. The dresses have done well, she said, and have prompted her to launch an e-commerce site to sell them.
Ms. von Furstenberg continues to come up with new ways to wear the wrap, from romper renditions to long and flirty ones.
“With the wrap dress, anything can happen,” she said.
Sara Bauknecht: email@example.com or Twitter @SaraB_PG. Blogs at www.post-gazette.com/stylebook.