It was a show-stopper. Wildly romantic, Princess Diana’s antique lace wedding dress, complete with a billowing 25-foot train, was anything but practical. And yet, it channeled the mood of a country ready for a return to tradition and glamour. It conveyed the message that Diana was her own independent woman. It heralded a new type of royal that we see continue today in William and Kate, Harry and Meghan – royals who are more openly emotional and wear their hearts on their sleeve.
That one gown precipitated a massive change in attitude, perception and practice in an institution that dates back thousands of years.
Gowns feature in both societal and personal histories the way few other single items do – and they often transcend the limits of their fabric and the bodies who wear them to find permanent places in the public imagination.
Consider one of the most famous moments in cinematic history: it’s not a scene consisting of great dialogue or an epic battle; it’s the moment in The Seven Year Itch when Marilyn Monroe’s plunging white dress is blown upwards by a subway grate breeze. While no longer particularly scandalous, it marked a shift towards highly sexualized women and an unprecedented culture of objectification that continues today.
On more recent terms, we can trace how a gown is responsible for how we utilize the internet. You most likely remember Jennifer Lopez’s tropical green chiffon Versace gown with the deepest of deep-V necklines at the Grammy Awards in 2000. It was the dress that launched Google Images. In an essay published in Project Syndicate, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, wrote: “At the time, it was the most popular search query we had ever seen. But we had no surefire way of getting users exactly what they wanted: J.Lo wearing that dress.” As a result, “Google Image Search was born.” The power of online images heralded our increasingly visual age and other social game changers like Instagram and Snapchat.
Even museums are finally acknowledging the historical and cultural impact of gowns. For instance, the Royal Ontario Museum’s new Christian Dior exhibit that traces the designer’s impact on the revival of Paris from the devastation of the Second World War. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibits such as Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, China: Through the Looking Glass and Punk: Chaos to Couture have never been more popular. It’s due to how dresses capture the mood, feel and significance of a moment in time like few other artifacts can.
Vogue: The Gown, by Jo Ellison (with a foreword by Alexandra Shulman), explores and commemorates the power of gowns over the years as photographed by Vogue magazine. In the first line of the book, Schulman ponders, “Where would Vogue be without the gown? More than a simple item of clothing, the gown influenced, shaped and embodied all that the world’s most influential fashion magazine is.
Vogue trades in transformation and, often, escapism. But it also champions female empowerment. Vogue is ultimately about women aspiring to be something more than they are. Editors and readers alike obsess over the gowns in the magazine’s pages because they assure us that metamorphosis is possible; that we and the world around us can change for the better. The proof is in a young, otherwise unremarkable model suddenly turned Grecian goddess, fierce gladiator or Amazon queen – all through the power of the gown.
Consider the winged fantasy dress with crystal clear buttons by Eve Stillman photographed for a 1967 Vogue editorial shot in the deserts of Abu Dhabi. Its flowing, whimsical nature captured the feeling of freedom and opportunity in the Emirate just two years after oil was discovered beneath its sands. At the turn of the millennium, model Maggie Rizer expressed hopes for a bright future and new beginnings in a skin-baring shimmering Versace gown crafted from chiffon and chainmail.
These are not mere dresses. They are ideas, dreams, philosophies and statements.
Red carpet designer extraordinaire Christian Siriano, who has dressed the likes of Angelina Jolie, Lupita Nyong’o, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lopez, Michelle Obama, Celine Dion, Taylor Swift and Christina Hendricks, also reflects on the power of the gown in his new coffee table book Dresses to Dream About. The gowns featured in the book aren’t necessarily the most elaborate or beautiful, but the ones that are most emotionally important to Siriano.
It’s the moment when a dress meets its wearer and transforms her that it gains power for Siriano. “You can be any girl at home with any type of job, put on an evening gown and be an entirely different person,” he tells me over the phone. It’s also why millions of women obsessively watch shows like Say Yes to the Dress. If you think the show is just about pretty wedding gowns, then you’re missing the point entirely.
He attributes the ever-growing phenomenon that is red carpet culture – fashion police, 360-degree cameras and all – to the emotional power of transformation. “Red carpet is full-on, ultimate escapism. It’s even more powerful than going to a museum, because you’re seeing hundreds of amazing pieces on your favourite icons. You see them change or embrace a new persona before your eyes. It becomes very emotional for people,” he says. “Watching a red carpet is like watching a story unfold.”
Siriano’s designs are making history themselves. The Jessica Rabbit-esque red, off-the-shoulder gown Leslie Jones wore to the premiere of Ghostbusters was designed by Siriano after the actor tweeted that no other designers were willing to dress her. He tells me the dress is now going to a museum, even though he didn’t see it as anything particularly extraordinary at the time, “but, to some, it came to represent what 2017 was about.”
By that, he’s referring to the strong push for increased diversity in Hollywood and other industries, whether that pertains to size, race or gender. Siriano has led the charge by designing gowns for curvy women such as Jones, Hendricks, Uzo Aduba and Jennifer Hudson when few designers stray from the outdated idea that glamorous eveningwear is for tall, impossibly thin and classically beautiful white women. In doing so, he’s democratized the power of the gown for women of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds.
The gown is unique in that it seems to grow more powerful as other fashion items become little more than consumer goods destined for the garbage bin. The hours of work and delicate hand labour that go into designing and creating a gown can’t be replicated by fast-fashion behemoths that have co-opted almost every other garment on the planet. Their status and influence remains unsullied.
Special dresses worn by special women have marked history, communicated important ideas and represented cultural movements. They’ve even transformed lives. As we face increasingly tough times, it’s more important than ever to avoid underestimating the power of a woman in a gown.