If I said to you “wrap dress”, what would be the first thing that sprang to mind? Would you think “sleek and versatile”, or would you think “sack of spuds”? Whichever it is, the name Diane von Furstenberg probably also popped up, or DVF if you prefer the shorter, catchier version. This year is the 40th anniversary of the DVF wrap dress – the dress that suits any woman of any shape and size, allegedly. I say allegedly because I have never really found it suited me except very fleetingly when I was toned and muscular from dance training and I was body-confident enough to wear a dress that felt as though modesty was only third on its priority list (which was probably the point in 1974).
Personally, I find that the fluid jersey construction – “it made every woman look like a feline” – is the very thing that turns me into Grizabella the Glamour Cat. I clutch, I fidget, I pin and I tape; I substitute a substantial leather belt for the skinny tie; and on one occasion I have actually sewn myself into one. You can’t say I haven’t tried. A tailored wrap dress in a fabric with structure is an entirely different proposition, neatening my outline and feeling secure. Why doesn’t the undoubtedly successful jersey wrap dress work for me?
Well, it’s shape, isn’t it? My shape has changed up and down, outward and inward, as I have gone through motherhood, changes in lifestyle and, perhaps most significantly now, ageing. I tried on a jersey dress, not a wrap, in LK Bennett last week and it looked dreadful on me, just as I knew it would. There have, however, been three constants in a lifetime of changing shape and they are the ones I always go back to.
I’ve worn the A-line since I was about five. Coincidentally, Christian Dior invented the term in the year I was born, which must be significant of something or other. This, to my mind, really is a shape that can be worn by any woman, although I think it suffers a bit from being thought of as slightly dull. That said, there are several A-line dresses and skirts in my cupboards and my (presently) fuller outline looks very well in them. As long as the fabric has some structure to it, an A-line dress fits neatly over the bust but then skims everything else, because it’s A-shaped, and it’s very flattering.
Empire line is another one that has been a good do-er. Even at my slimmest, I have always had childbearing hips. The difference between empire and A-line is that the empire line is seamed under the bust and then falls to a flared, gathered but always a fuller skirt. I’m not keen on much gathering, which only adds bulk, but I love the way it hides the wobblier bits. My mother-of-the-bride outfit for my oldest daughter’s wedding was an empire line 30s tea dress with a longish bias cut skirt and flutter sleeves – pale lemon and scattered with a lilac blossom print, it was the prettiest thing and I didn’t look matronly at all, even though I undoubtedly was at the time.
Vintage or retro styling of the 50s sort has always been a thing for me, and given that one of my earliest memories is of my mum’s swishy skirts, I suppose that’s hardly surprising. Of course, this means full skirts and full skirts make the waist look smaller (tiny even) and cover hippier hips – you might be noticing a theme here. My top half has always been my neater half, so that’s the bit I like my clothing to fit to. Over the last few years I’ve acquired a bust (something I last remember having when I was breast-feeding), over which a fitted bodice and full skirt feel comfortable and neat.
A couple of summers ago I took to wearing a black linen, full-skirted shirt waister with my own layers of petticoats underneath and, as is often the case with favourites, I wore it until it finally disintegrated, but I always felt good in that dress. I need a (wider) belt to help define my waist now, but it’s still broadly there and this still broadly works and it’s feminine. Femininity is something I’m keen to hang on to but I would rather do it without frilliness (which isn’t the same thing at all), although I do permit the “right” sort of frills in my wardrobe in moderate quantities.
The “right sort of frills” sounds like a topic for another conversation, which might be a good place to leave this one and ask what dress shapes have always worked for you?
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