THE FITTED DRESS
Emily Zak, a journalist and global brand strategist, takes us on a journey through the history of the fitted dress and why it still remains an empowering piece in our wardrobes.
If feeling good in your own skin was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully-cut, fitted dress. Like a second skin, it balances the curves of the body and stands as a wardrobe building block and power player, all while showing us just how far women’s fashion has evolved from the early ateliers of Paris.
The couturiers of early 19th-century Paris reshaped women’s bodies with generous amounts of crinoline for full skirts, and corsets for small, wasp-like waists. At their most extreme, these made it difficult to fit through doorways, sit in chairs or even breathe. For Gabrielle Coco Chanel, and later Yves Saint Laurent who created the modern wardrobe as we know it, borrowing from men’s tailoring helped free women’s bodies allowing for more ease of movement.
The idea that tailoring is women in men’s clothes, couldn’t be farther from the truth. The queen of the bias-cut, Madeleine Vionnet’s slinky, figure-hugging dresses used discrete tailoring by cutting fabric on an angle and layering with invisible stitching. Her dresses epitomizing the Hollywood glamour of the 1930s with Jane Harlow and Joan Crawford among some of her most iconic fans.
Azzedine Alaia later took up this mantel with his signature body-con dresses. Known as the _king-of-cling, _and in tribute to Vionnet’s influence on his own work, Alaia described himself as a _bâtisseur or _builder, creating his clothes on live models in order to sculpt the dresses respecting the lines of the body. His work defined the ‘80s and led to the strong silhouettes that would become synonymous with the decade
For those too young to remember, no time period captures the power in power dressing like the 1980s. This was the era of supermodels, shoulder pads and women who used their clothes to help them smash glass ceilings. Design giants Claude Montana and Giorgio Armani happily obliged, reworking men’s suiting in feminine proportions while maintaining certain brawny features. It was Jean Paul Gaultier’s cone bras and corsets, and Thierry Mugler’s sharp shoulders reworked tailoring that subverted the style in sexy new ways.
But, where does this leave our fitted dress? Fast forward to the 2019 Met gala for a very different form, one that could only come from Kim Kardashian. Thierry Mugler created a custom-made dress, dripping in Swarovski crystals resembling water droplets. It captured the drama and theatre of Mugler’s fashion shows and was an unlikely masterclass in tailoring. Designed to trick the eye with a nearly nude illusion, soft draping and a hidden corset manipulating Kim’s body into doll-like proportions.
Unlike men’s suiting, women’s tailoring is far from monolithic. I’d like to think that the spectrum of options reflects the many different hats women wear as a strength, not a weakness. There is suiting yes, but the spectrum is broad enough to include Kardashian’s body-con dress. Sometimes, it is as much about what’s covered as what isn’t. Remember Versace’s famous safety pin dress worn by Elizabeth Hurley?
In my many years as a Fashion Director, I return to well-fitted dresses from the likes of Roland Mouret, Balmain and Hervé Léger as a secret weapon for women of all shapes and sizes. It can do for them what it has always done for men, balance proportions and highlight the best attributes, giving the wearer the confidence to forget about what she’s wearing… Maybe this has always been the real power in power dressing.