THE FLORAL DRESS
International fashion journalist and host of the Fashion Your Seatbelt podcast Jessica Michault explores the magic of a summer staple.
At first blush, the floral dress might not be thought of as a wardrobe icon in the same way as, say, a blazer, a crisp white shirt or a little black dress. But dismissing the floral dress would be a mistake. It has just as important a role as any of those other icons in our closets and has an evergreen staying power. Floral dresses have been a fashion hallmark for centuries, long before any of those other pieces came along. In fact, ever since the tastemakers of ancient Rome began accessorizing their togas with fresh blooms, fashion and the power of the flower have been interlinked. Once the silk producers of medieval Asia worked out how to weave patterns like the exotic peony into their fabrics, the floral trend blossomed everywhere it was imported.
There are some women, I was once one of them, who have a fear of wearing florals. “I’ll look too girly!” or, “prints and I just don’t get along,” are some of the phrases I have heard come out of the mouths of colleagues who forgo florals. How wrong they are. They offer a uniquely beguiling mix of nature and femininity that can emulate every mood – from prim to pretty to deeply dramatic. If you’ve got a tough message to deliver, they can soften the impact. Michelle Obama’s love of large-scale florals was a masterclass in using their power to signal her own strength. Or think of Reese Witherspoon, attending hotshot Hollywood meetings clothed not in power separates but in sweet, flowery tea dresses. In 1954’s Sabrina, Audrey Hepburn outshines a ballroom full of guests in conventional evening attire, by way of a floor-sweeping, white Givenchy gown – embellished with navy flowers. When Hepburn accepted her Best Actress Oscar for Roman Holiday the same year, the cinched, white floral Givenchy dress she wore is the style peak in combining glamour and girlishness to devastating effect.
Florals can convey any mood, depending on the pattern you pick. For historical romance, a delicate botanical inspired by the Liberty print is hard to beat. William Morris, icon of the early 20th century Arts and Crafts movement, made Indian chintz-inspired designs all the rage. Find the modern iteration in dresses from the likes of Zimmermann and Emilia Wickstead. If you want to exude a sweet, Little Women-ish innocence, there are ruffled prairie dresses scattered in small sprigs from brands like GANNI and Les Rêveries. There’s something about the irony of retro upholstery florals that designers love to subvert. In his work at Balenciaga and Vetements, Demna Gvsalia inspired a street-style mania for the kind of prints you might have found on granny’s curtains, but draped and spliced in new ways. Of course, some houses have made florals their calling card – whether it’s Mary Katrantzou’s dizzying digital designs, Dolce & Gabbana’s bold baroque blooms or Preen’s endless innovation with shirring and asymmetry that gives their floral frocks a cool twist. Then there’s the bold exuberance of 1960s and 1970s designs – think of Mary Quant’s signature monochrome daisy and the stylized poppies and tulips of Celia Birtwell, whose prints combined with husband Ossie Clark’s clothing designs are now some of the most collectible vintage pieces. Find the same graphic mood in brands like Diane von Furstenberg and Emilio Pucci. Your choice speaks volumes about who you are and how you want to be viewed by the world.
The floral dress has endless styling potential. Mix it with flat sandals, loose locks and long earrings and it’s the perfect sunny weather ensemble. Layer under a fitted blazer, add a pair of creepers and a high ponytail and poof! A modern update on the ‘90s grunge-floral aesthetic.
The day I met my future husband, I was wearing a blue, empire-waist chintz dress, covered in sweet little pink blooms. I remember (even before his green eyes alighted on me in the University cafeteria for the first time) feeling especially beautiful and self-assured. I’d finally taken the plunge and embraced my feminine side. Up until that fortuitous day, you have to understand, I was a 24/7 trouser and suit-wearing kind of woman. But putting on that dress was a sartorial awakening for me. I discovered that, as pretty as flowery frocks might be, they can also wield some serious power. They’re unapologetic in their use of some of the world’s most beautiful creations to adorn women in ways that elevate them, connect them to Mother Nature and quite simply, make them look and feel beautiful. That’s something we all need…