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 on whom you ask — and has become synonymous with designer Diane von Furstenberg, who popularized it with her take on the wrap introduced 40 years ago.
The fabled frock was the subject of a recent exhibit, “Journey of a Dress,” in Los Angeles, along with portraits of Von Furstenberg by Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger, Chuck Close, Francesco Clemente, Helmut Newton and Annie Leibovitz. It included stills of the wrap dress in movies, 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 share their stories and photos about memorable moments when they wore the dress.
“It is really all about the woman,” Von Furstenberg said in an e-mail. “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.”
Von Furstenberg was in her 20s when she debuted it. Before 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 time 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. “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 says that part of the DVF wrap dress’ initial appeal was as an alternative to pantsuits. It was easy to wear, wash and looked sensual, thanks to the V-neck and the tie wrap.
It was a hit from the start, Von Furstenberg said, adding that fashion editor and columnist Diana Vreeland “loved them.”
“I knew that was a good sign,” she said.
But the wrap dress predates Von Furstenberg. Some argue that its roots can be traced to ancient Egypt, said Michael Gainey, an adjunct professor for the Art Institute of Pittsburgh’s fashion program. That’s not a knock against Von Furstenberg, he insisted. Pretty much anything in fashion can be linked to earlier eras, 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 on wrap-style designs by Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Another iteration that predates these is the 1920s taxi dress by Charles James.
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.”
“With the wrap dress, anything can happen,” she said.