Rapture of the Wrap Dress

Why hasn’t Diane Von Furstenberg won a Nobel Prize? If ever there was someone who has made significant contribution to mankind it is she. The impact of this ingenious invention cannot be underestimated. Forget diamonds being a girl’s best friend; a jersey wrap dress is a BFF that always has your back. (Don’t get me wrong, diamonds are nice too. And if my husband is reading this I should mention they just happen to be my birthstone. I’m just saying.)

Her wrap dress has withstood the test of time, not to mention the test of packing and unpacking. Waist-whittling, hip slimming, bust-showcasing, the wrap was an immediate hit when Miz Diane introduced it in 1972. ‘Feel like a woman, wear a dress,’ says iconic designer Diane von Furstenberg, who launched her eponymous label in the early ’70s.

“I created a top inspired by the kind that ballerinas wear over their tutu, with a matching skirt.” That concept, what she calls “an old shape, like a kimono, crisscrossing over the body,” evolved into a dress, rendered in printed jersey that sluiced over the female frame.   “It was a nothing little dress, but it became a major thing—the easiest, simplest, most flattering thing a woman could wear.” It also became the linchpin of her fashion empire.

“Nobody ever thought my dress would be important. People said, ‘Well, she’s not really a designer.’ But the truth is,” she says, smiling, “I made a dress that was immortal. That dress taught me about women, confidence, designing. I owe everything to that dress.”

First, some history. (Feel free to skip this part.) As an instrument of glamour technology, the wrap dress actually existed back in the 1940’s. Although it is often claimed that Diane von Fürstenberg ‘invented’ the wrap dress in 1972/73, Richard Martin, a former curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art , noted that the form of Fürstenberg’s design had already been “deeply embedded into the American designer sportswear tradition”.  But it was DVF’s  choice of elastic, synthetic fabrics that distinguished her work from earlier wrap dresses. During the Great Depression, house dresses called “Hooverettes” employed the wrap design, and they were really popular. Wrap dresses were designed by Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s and by Claire McCardell in the 1940s, whose original ‘popover‘ design became the basis for a variety of wrap-around dresses.

But it was DEF DVF who innovated and updated what had once been primarily used as a housedress. She made her wraps out of silk jersey and soft acrylics, in what appears now to be a limitless palette of prints and colors. The wrap dresses were simple and elegant. “It’s more than just a dress; it’s a spirit,” said Von Furstenberg. “The wrap dress was an interesting cultural phenomenon, and one that has lasted 30 years. What is so special about it is that it’s actually a very traditional form of clothing. Its like a toga, it’s like a kimono, without buttons, without a zipper. What made my wrap dresses different is that they were made out of jersey and they sculpted the body.” The wraps were soft and versatile and flexible, just like the women they festooned and empowered. Easy to pack, easy to put on, easy to take off, and the dress’ wrap technology meant that one could still wear if one (inevitably) put on, or took off, some pounds. Their easy elegance and fashionable functionalism made them the go-to uniform for the newly liberated sophisticate: running about town, dating about town, spending all working her ass off, and then spending all night dancing it off at Studio 54.

A wrap dress is defined as a dress with a front closure formed by wrapping one side across the other, and knotting the attached ties that wrap around the back at the waist or fastening buttons. This forms a V-shaped neckline and hugs the wearer’s curves. A faux wrap dress resembles this design, except that it comes already fastened together with no opening in front, but instead is slipped on over the head. A wrap top is a top cut and constructed in the same way as a wrap dress, but without a skirt.

The Fürstenberg interpretation of the wrap dress, which was consistently knee-length, in a clinging jersey, with long sleeves, was so popular and so distinctive that the style has generally become associated with her. She has stated that her divorce inspired the design, and also suggested it was created in the spirit of enabling women to enjoy sexual freedom. In 2004 a book dedicated entirely to Fürstenberg’s wrap dresses was published

Wrap dresses achieved their peak of popularity in the mid to late 1970s, and the design has been credited with becoming a symbol of women’s liberation in the 1970s.[ They experienced renewed popularity beginning in the late 1990s, particularly after von Fürstenberg reintroduced her wrap dress in 1997; she, among oth

Diane and her iconic dress made the cover of NEWSWEEK on March 22, 1976, cementing the dress’s place in fashionista herstory. “The wrap dress made women feel what they wanted to feel like… free and sexy,” said Von Furstenberg. “It also fitted in with the sexual revolution: a woman who chose to could be out of it in less than a minute!”

The wrap dress fell out of favor during the dark days of the “dress for success” craze and the power-suit-mad ‘80s.  But in the late 90’s Diane burst again upon the scene, and the wrap ascended to its rightful place on the fashion throne.

Now, the real stuff.  in the interest if full disclosure I suppose I should mention that I was once personally – and perhaps a bit pathetically – the owner of over 50Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses. Some of them are rare vintage finds from the 70’s, some of them I bought, well, yesterday. I’ve got long-sleeved dresses (those are the best), short-sleeved dresses, and sleeveless wraps. I’ve got tropical prints, floral prints, abstract prints, leopard, snakeskin and figural prints. I’ve got them in greens, blues, reds, yellows, orange, pink, purple, and dozens in black and black with squiggles.

The problem is, once you get one and you find how versatile and easy and flattering the thing is, you just have to have more. Then, when you have a few perfectly good ones, you start getting that collecting head. You know the one I mean, the one where once you have three of anything an otherworldly power compels you to keep acquiring more as if on a holy mission. And as far as I know, I am on the proverbial mission from God, who I’m 100% sure wants me to look awesome. You’ll see: get one, then two, and when you behold the fabulousness you too will be obliged to get every print and variation you can get your hot little manicured hands on.

Also in the interest of full disclosure, I should say not “when you behold”  but “IF.” The wrap dress is not for everyone. For one thing, they look lousy on men; if you don’t have a waist the dress highlights this fact and makes you look more straight-up-and-down-ish than ever. Women without a defined waist or much of a chest should steer clear of the DVF wrap and its many imitators. A wrap on the boyish is not putting your best body forward; the dress works best on women on the hourglass-y side. Even if you’re not exactly lithe, and very few of us are, a good wrap dress will play up what’s great about your figure – its curves, a lovely waist-to-hip ratio – and flow right over what’s not so hot (hips and thighs, I’m talking to you). As if that weren’t enough, the deep V-neck is slimming and universally flattering.

Curve-flattering, and utterly non-sausage-casing-ish, the DVF wrap makes young women look chic and sophisticated and is also an appropriately sexy and elegant choice for women over 40. With the right underwear, the dress can take a woman d’un certain ageto work, dinner, a date, a business conference, a wedding, a cocktail party, a cabinet meeting, a high school reunion, the witness stand, the defendant’s table…you get the idea. It’s also a great option for women avec enfant because it hides a pregnant belly with more style – and sex appeal — than a maternity tent or elastic waistbanded fallback pants.

In addition to it being flattering, easy to care for (no ironing!), and appropriate for nearly every occasion (except maybe combat or lumberjackery), the dress is so versatile it can be accessorized every which way from Sunday.

Here are some things dames need to keep in mind when scouring the planet for wrap dresses. Yes, wrap dresses are a dame’s best friend, but don’t get carried away. (Says the woman with over 50 wrap dresses.) Here are some tips to help you get your wraptureright:

Fit Comes First– Flatter what you got, flaunt what you want, and hide what’s nobody’s damn business. As the ancient Greeks said, “Know thyself,” and by “thyself” I mean your boobs, your butt, your legs and your torso.  There are many different styles of wrap dress so choose the one(s) that work best for your individual frame. If you’re the voluptuous type, make sure you get an ample-sized dress.  The DVF dresses typically run smaller than the size you might usually wear. For example, I am usually a size 6 in street clothes but I tend to buy my wraps in a size 10 to make sure there is no gaping or pulling or way too much boobage.  (Boobage is great, but you never want to look like 20 pounds of potatoes in a 10-pound sack.) Go up even more sizes when going vintage; when I buy the 70’s acrylic Von Furstenbergs I usually go with a size 14!

Waifish women may want to actually go down a size or two; you don’t want extra fabric on top calling attention to what’s not there.  (Of course, none of this is anything some padding or some of those bra “chicken cutlets” can’t fix.)

Speaking of Breasts– The DVF wrap is notorious for its lack of chestal coverage.  Many women wear their dresses with a tank or camisole underneath to keep from letting it (I mean them) all hang out. If you’re narrow up top, this is an especially good option, as it will give the illusion of having more bosomage.  This is also good if you’re not necessarily small on top but just bigger on bottom; fullness above the waist will provide some symmetry and make your shape less than pear-ish.

Underneath It All, It’s All About the Underwear– Again, you can’t go wrong with the right underwear.  While we’re handing out Nobel Prizes we really should include the good Samaritans who invented shapewear to eliminate (well, hide) those unsightly lumps and bumps. A relatively new phenomenon, now brands like Spanx, Sassybax, Lytess, MiracleSuit, YummieTummie, and more abound to make us all look smooth and svelte under our clothes – including soft, clingy DVF wrap dresses. As mentioned earlier, wraps are great for the voluptuous among us, but the right underwear is essential.  The same fabric that makes the dress so comfortable and easy to pack is the same fabric that will cling mercilessly to every lump and bump. This may not always be an issue, but underwear that smoothes out the bumpy road beneath the wool and silk jersey dresses is often the difference between being able to wear a wrap or not. If the spirit is willing but the flesh is, well, fleshy, see what the Lytess or Spanx can do to get you on the path to rockin’ the wrap.

Some may want a waist-whittler, but most can get by with an all-in-one tummy upper thing holder-inner. If it’s more waist definition you want, pick a wrap with ruching in the middle, or tie that self-belt tighter. (But not sotight that you make new lumps.)

Are Prints Charming?  Be careful about which prints you wear. Just as not every color is flattering (chartreuse, I’m talking to you), some prints can do you a real disservice. Some prints can make you look old and frumpy, especially some florals. If you are on the large-ish side, make sure you steer clear of small floral prints, as they’ll just make you look larger.  Some prints can make you look wide, especially horizontal lines. If you want lines go with the vertical or diagonals since they’re slimming.

And some prints are just plain fugly. Don’t wear those.

Dress Them Up, Dress Them Down. The wrap dress isn’t only versatile in that you can wear it anywhere. It’s also versatile because you can wear it with any thing. You can wear it over tanks, turtlenecks, camisoles or even a funky T-shirt. You can wear it over opaque tights in the winter and bare-legged in summer. Wraps look great with heels, and they also look good with flats, boots, sandals, even flip-flops. It goes with just about any shoe, though I’m not a big fan of wearing stilettos or pumps with wraps; they seem to add a discordant air of formality to an inherently easy, easy-going, flowing style. But, it’s really a matter of taste.

Choose accessories based on whether your aim is to dress up the wrap, or dress it down. I’ll wear a very different bag with my wrap if I’m trying to give myself a more casual look than I would if I’m trying to make my dress work in a more formal, festive, or a professional setting. Wraps are easily dressed-up with jewelry and a luxury bag, or dressed-downwith black leggings, casual shoes, heck – I’ve even worn my DVFs to great effect over dark rinse jeans. (What won’tI do to avoid shaving my legs?) You can jazz up a wrap with loads of necklaces and bangles, or wear it simply and let its elegance do all the talking.

My go-to wraps for evening are usually black ones or mostly black ones; they easily go upscale with a shiny metallic clutch and some killer Louboutins. If you want to wear jewelry on these occasions, one statement necklace, one to three quality bracelets, or one strong cocktail ring should do it.

Beware of Imitations. True, many designers make wrap dresses now, and many of them are great, and well-priced. (Banana Republic and BCBG often have nice ones.) But be aware that all wrap dresses are not created equal. Now manufactured in the Far East and China instead of Europe, the new DVFs are not made as well as their vintage counterparts. Synthetic imitations abound at every price point so what was once a high-ish end item has increased in number while the quality has decreased. Still, genuine contemporary DVFs are still a great staple, and you can find them in stores and all over the Web. I have found eBay to be a great source for getting wraps, especially older designs, at good prices, but you have to be very careful not to buy cheap imitations. Be sure you examine a seller’s feedback closely, and look for red flags, like if the seller is in Singapore or China, or if the seller appears to have many DVFs for sale. I like to buy the ones sold by some woman cleaning out her closet, the ones whose auctions have a dimly lit photo of a dress hanging limp on a hanger across a doorframe. Here’s a secret: spell Furstenberg incorrectly in the search box. Sellers who listed their items as “Furstenburg” will not get as many eyes so you won’t have lots of bidding competition, thusly you can score a DVF cheap(er).  In fact, eBay – and vintage stores and vintage clothing shows — are great places to look for those original 70’s wraps. They’re usually made of acrylic, and look for “Made in Italy” on the label.

The upshot is, even dames have the occasional what-to-wear crisis, and with a wrap dress it’s hard to go wrong. What do I wear to a business cocktail party? What should I pack? What do I wear when meeting my ex and his new wife? The wrap dress is almost always the answer to any wardrobe quandary.

You are a one-of-a-kind gift and you don’t wanna keep it under wraps. (Though wrap dressesare de rigueur.)

So, launching a write-in vote campaign for Diane’s Nobel Prize – who’s with me?

 

 

 

Dixie Laite - Dame Town Writer

Author: Dixie Laite

I'm Sarah "Dixie" Laite -- a writer and branding consultant in New York City. I love classic movies, animals, flea markets, and "Law & Order" re-runs. I live with my husband, 2 dogs and 5 parrots in midtown Manhattan.All my life I've been obsessed with figuring out how to navigate life as a woman. There are endless books, TV shows, gurus, guys, movies and magazines out there to guide you. But now that I'm closing in on 60, I've noticed that the old rules don't apply, and most of the role models aren't old enough.I'm older now. I know more and I weigh more. I want to be inspired and I want to inspire. Let's get a handle on this shit and figure it out together.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *