THE MAXI DRESS
Few wardrobe items have been underestimated as consistently as the maxi dress. Fashion purists tend to dismiss it as the wear-it-once-a-year stuff of beach holidays or associate it with boho, that most polarizing of trends. When in fact the underrated perennial is so much more.
I first fell in love with the long, ankle-length dress as a young aspiring dancer watching Alvin Ailey’s iconic ballet, Cry, for the first time. I couldn’t have been older than 16 or 17 and felt like my world view was forever changed when I tuned into an old arts special on PBS and saw Mr. Ailey’s muse, Judith Jamison, perform the work that made her famous, a celebration of Black women. Technically, she wore two pieces: a simple, long-sleeved white leotard that scooped low at the back, and a long, voluminous ivory skirt that had a life of its own. But to my eye, the two worked as one, the costume was as memorable a character as the ballet itself.
The skirt jumped and twirled around Judith, accentuating the purity of line of each arabesque and developpé. I went down a rabbit hole of old dance movies from there, and quickly realized that the maxi dress was the dancer’s go-to: on Leslie Browne and Shirley MacLaine in the Academy Award nominated ballet film The Turning Point and on Katherine Dunham on the iconic black and white classic Stormy Weather. I began to associate the maxi skirt and dress with movement and elegance. I liked its fluidity.
I reconnected with the maxi dress, and my old dancer self, four years ago when I wore a Valentino dress to the British Fashion Awards. Inspired by the dancers of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Ballet Russses, it was sleek, in gold velvet with a high neck, long sleeves and an ankle-grazing trapeze shape. I liked the ease of it, and the way the hemline twisted and spun around my legs as I walked. It was one of my happiest moments in a dress. And I’ve been wearing the maxi, in some shape or form, pretty much ever since.
My love for the maxi dress has admittedly grown as the amount of choice has exploded, thanks in no small part to modest dressing grabbing hold of the 2010s. And as we lean into a new decade, its appeal doesn’t seem to show any sign of abating. We’ve seen the prairie dress, peasant dress and now, in lockdown, the house dress, all take off. Entire brands have been built around it, Cecilie Bahnsen for instance.
It’s an unexpected wardrobe cornerstone to have. But for me, it’s right up there with my beloved denim, trench coats and cashmere jumpers. For day, I like them bold and graphic or sweet and feminine, with bite — and always, always, grounded with a heavy shoe, whether a tread-sole slide in summer or equestrian boot in winter.
I have an arsenal of Simone Rocha, Molly Goddard, Mara Hoffman, Paco Rabanne, Rejina Pyo and Preen dresses I wear with belted trenches and derby boots for both day and evening (with a change of shoes). Lighter silk, tulle and chiffon for summer, heavier velvets for winter. But all shared the same sense of fluidity and ease. And when I was pregnant with both my boys, I simply skipped the belt. Now if I only I could carve out the time to slip back into the dance studio and re-embrace my inner Judith.