The new little black dress
Fall’s ultimate evening dress is black, white, even carmine red, now that a crop of young designers is pushing ’50s couture sophistication to an inspiring modern edge. Could this mean a whole new way of “dressing”?
Here are a few words that have been missing from our fashion vocabulary of late: Chantilly lace, plisse chiffon, duchesse satin, evening gloves, diamante, pearls. Like the nostalgic scent of a woman enveloped in a cloud of Arpege perfume, these words conjure up the champagne-tinted cocktail culture of the ’50s and early ’60s.
It was a time when Marcello Mastroianni escorted little-black-dress-clad Anouk Aimee (in a prim version) and Anita Ekberg (in the sexier decollete-bearing one) in La Dolce Vita; when Audrey Hepburn, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, dressed after-five appropriate at all hours, wearing LBDs during the day (to visit Sing Sing no less!) and full-length gowns for cocktails at night;
And when Liz Taylor seemed to spend her onscreen moments in pre-cocktails mode, simmering and seductive in a slip, hair coiffed, jewelry and shoes on, nursing a scotch. It was an era when going to the homes of friends for drinks meant having your hair set and pulling out your brocade sleeveless shift, pearls, d’Orsay pu mps and evening bag.
Today, cocktail attire has become a little more lax. Drinks with friends now requires the bare minimum of effort: jeans, a Chloe blouse, hair scrunched in the same all-day ponytail. Come fall, however, dressing up to go out–whether to a cocktail party, dinner or a more formal event–will mean getting reacquainted with some ’50s notions of after-five attire. This change is because some of today’s most promising designers are turning their backs on anything unpolished and embracing womanly elegance.
Young American names such as Zac Posen, and Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler, are turning out grown-up collections that, although edgy, have more in common with vintage Bill Blass and Oscar de Ia Renta than, say, fashion mavericks like Junya Watanabe and Martin Margiela.
New York’s Uncle Maine of fashion, Isaac Mizrahi, is bursting back on the scene with a collection of made-to-order gowns and dresses, which he insists his clients be fitted for. And in Paris, some of the premiere fashion houses of the ’50s and ’60s are shaking off the dust and being revitalized by a group of noteworthy talents.
After a brief hiatus, Moroccan-born Adber Elbaz (formerly the designer for Guy Laroche and YSL Rive Gauche before the Gucci Group took over) is rewing up the house of Lanvin; Belgian star Olivier Theyskens is reshaping the future of Rochas; avant-garde Japanese designer Koji Tatsuno has been handed the reins to the venerable house of Gres;
And the latest to join the revolution is Swede Lars Nils son, whose unexpected firing at Bill Blass landed him in the driver’s seat at Nina Ricci. Even the house of Worth has come out with a tres Parisienne line of lingerie under the guidance of relative newcomer Giovanni Bedin (who has worked for Karl Lagerfeld).
And one of Rome’s best-kept secrets, the couturier Roberto Capucci, recently overhauled his gilded-set image by employing the street-funky talents of German designer Bernhard Willhelm for the house’s first ready-to-wear line. (Next spring, Tara Subkoff and Spanish designer Sybilla will be added to the mix.) “We aren’t returning to an idea of elegance from another time,” says Isaac Mizrahi about the new wave of fancy dressing. “We are turning to another idea of elegance. And elegance is important. Who doesn’t want to look longer, thinner, more finished–to be our handsomest?”
What does this new attitude mean for fashion? First, that the cocktail dress is back with a vengeance in every exquisite incarnation this fall. Second, the innovative energy of all these designers could help write an important new chapter of fashion history, akin not only to the days of Madame Gres and Jeanne Lanvin but also to those of other adventuresome rule breakers, such as Paul Poiret and Cristobal Balenciaga.
Alber Elbaz is enthusiastic about the possibility. “For me, sophisticated dressing was never out,” he says. “I think more and more women today prefer to wear something more feminine with a bit of fantasy to special evening functions.” Elbaz’s take on delicate sensuality for fall includes the most delicious shade of carmine red wool-satin that falls into a billowy pleated cocktail dress. His clothes not only show an acute ability to craft; they also have an irresistible charm as well as a current of underlying steeliness that makes them ultimately modern.
At Rochas, Olivier Theyskens renewed the idea of playing with both proportion and color in a couture-like way. “I had been missing elegance and strong choices in clothing,” the designer says. “I wanted something explosive, but with taste and femininity as its base.” On the runway, his clothes combined those ideas with devastatingly beautiful bravado.
A pink silk boudoir slipdress morphed into a tutu of high-voltage orange tulle starting at the waist, followed by a slim column of orange satin for the skirt. A black brocade jacket with large bell sleeves and an A-line skirt was Edwardian by way of the ’50s, with a 2003 edge thrown in. Evening gloves–in Theyskens’ modern interpretation of electric blue–were crushed at the wrists and his models’ hair was piled up in romantic, soft chignons.
Meanwhile, Lars Nilsson, whose sporty evening clothes at Bill Blass made him the darling of New York’s social set, has been busy (and up to his eyeballs in wafts of Chantilly lace) working on his spring 2004 debut collection for Nina Ricci, which he says will have a heavy emphasis on cocktail clothes. “I think the demand for dressing up again is great,” he says from his new atelier in Paris. “I see it all the time. Women come to me when they are going to a cocktail party and they want to dress up.”
But what does this obsession with cocktail dresses, plisse chiffon and ladylike gloves mean? That this season, you should leave room in your clothing budget for one or two outstanding dresses, because the days of wearing jeans (even a $300 pair) with a feminine shirt and heels are over. Amen. Find a proper evening bag and some beautiful heels (maybe in satin or with diamante accents), learn how to pull your hair back in a sophisticated (not sloppy!) fashion and dust off your pearls.
Perhaps this return to elegance will also bring about a new, swish, high-glamour cocktail era in which women dress like women, men wear suits and the art of flirting and dancing till dawn returns, It wouldn’t be so bad.