By Cary O’dell
As we all know, fashion comes and…goes. And, yet, for all its transitory properties, there comes along, once in a while, truly staggering, time-freezing incidents that forever impact not only the world of fashion, the world at large. Fashion insiders like to give these rare occurrences the rather less-than-accurate label of “moments.”
Throughout modern fashion history there have been more than a few—the first time denim came down the runway, Halston’s introduction of ultrasuede, Galliano’s debut show (even before he joined Dior), Tom Ford’s arrival at Gucci.
And, yet, among them all, there remains a handful of times (whether we knew it at the time or not) when the world really did seem to stop and the fashion waters parted and some truly revolutionary was offered forth.
Below are, in no particular order and only in my humble opinion, fashion’s most memorable and important moments and “Moments.”
You are free to disagree….
Le smoking (1968) by Yves Saint Laurent
YSL’s le smoking look, 1966
Though incorporating elements of menswear into womenswear had been a staple of fashion dating back to Chanel’s opening of her first house in the early 1900’s and Marlene Dietrich in film in the 1930s, there was still something sleekly revolutionary when the great Yves Saint Laurent introduced his le smoking in 1966. Inspired, obviously, by a man’s tuxedo but tailored to flatter a woman, le smoking was a new, instantly classical and stylish alternative to the “little black dress.” At the time of its adoption, not everyone was onboard with this new masculine dressing. Quite famously, in 1968, noted fashionista Nan Kemper was barred from entering a tony New York City eatery when she dared to show up in le smoking, complete with the jacket’s matching pants. (Legend has it that she got around their dress code by whipping off her pants and just wearing the jacket which was just barely long enough.) Since then, tux dressing has become a sexy and timeless trope when either paired with a white silk blouse underneath or worn over the nude. Along with its chic elegance, le smoking also prefigured the era of androgyny that would later be so influential in music in the 1970s (think David Bowie) and 1980s (think Annie Lennox).
The Wrap Dress (1974) by Diane Von Furstenberg
The Wrap Dress, c. 1974
The aristocratic looking and sounding Diane Von Furstenberg began designing clothes in 1970. She began with a series of separates, skirts and tops, until one day she had the idea to join her wrap skirt with her signature blouse into one garment. Made out of knitted jersey, Von Furstenberg’s first “wrap dress” appeared in 1974. Easy to buy, fit and wear and available in a variety of colors and prints, the wrap dresses became instant best sellers; in her early days, Von Furstenberg could barely keep up with demand. The extraordinary success of the dress has been credited to many factors. Along with its ease and comfort, the dress was practical enough for the office but still quite feminine. It was perfect for the new professional woman who, even if she wanted to mix it up with “the boys,” didn’t want to dress like one. Furthermore, with more and more women delaying marriages, going to work and living on their own, self-sufficiency was the key. The dress, put on from the back and fastened in the front, no longer required a woman to have someone around to “zip her up.” In her memoir, “Diana: A Signature Life,” Von Furstenberg also suggests that the dress played a role in the sexual revolution which reached its height in the 1970s: with the garment, women could take it off as easily as they could put it on. The dress, and its designer, became so omnipresent in the middle of the 1970s that both were featured on the cover of “Newsweek” in the summer of 1976.
Evening Gowns (c. 1952) by Charles James
Ball gowns By Charles James, photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1948
Charles James is most, almost exclusively, renowned for his grand evening gowns. They are like every Disney princesses’ greatest dream come to life. The dresses often don’t even look sewn—just constructed by the placing and draping of great unbroken lengths of silk or satin. The skirts are extravagantly full, the bodices tight, often appearing restricting. They look extraordinary. And their graceful movement and almost casual appearance belie the meticulous craftsmanship that went into their tailoring and infrastructure. The American-born James showed his first collection in 1947. He would go on to dress clients from Babe Paley to Millicent Rogers, each in superb, one-of-a-kind looks that transformed high fashion into high art. Such voluminous use of fabric was nothing new in fashion—Mario Antoinette, anyone?—but what James did with it, and the silhouette he created in the process—created the template for a million later ball gowns, wedding dresses and prom night specials.
The Classic Chanel Suit (c. 1920) by Coco Chanel
A classic Chanel suit from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art., 1970s. metmuseum.org.
No other designer in history has had a more profound impact on the way women dress than Coco Chanel. She rescued women from the layer upon layer of Victorian dowdiness. She streamlined their silhouette, she eliminated the corset, she introduced the idea of sportswear. She even crafted the world’s greatest and most enduring designer fragrance. But perhaps her greatest achievement was what has come to become called “The Chanel Suit.” A bit boxy but still feminine, the classic suit is a skirt and jacket. But Chanel’s genius is in the details. A chain was originally embedded in the hem of the jacket to hold it in place even when the woman reaches above her head; the pockets on the outside o the jacket were handy for keys, a lip stick or cigarettes; and the back of each skirt is lined so that, no matter how often it is worn, no client ever “sits out” her skirt. Made in jersey, tweed or quilted, the suits were comfortable yet extremely sturdy. Chanel made them dressy by adding her famous trademarks—costume jewelry (gold chains and pearls), a two-toned shoe, brass buttons. Since taking over as lead designer for the House of Chanel 30 years ago, Karl Lagerfeld has spun this core look off into a million variations. Yet, in any incarnation, the basic suit remains modern looking and completely tasteful, something that can only be done when working from a starting point of such an incredible original achievement.
The “New Look” (1947) by Christian Dior
Dior’s “New Look,” 1947
For fashion, it was the equivalent of the atom bomb. Supposedly named by Carmel Snow, then the powerful editor of “Harper’s Bazaar,” Christian Dior’s luxe, wide skirt and cinched waist, which he debuted in 1947, put Paris fashion back on the map after the dark days of World War II occupation. After more than a decade of utilitarian clothes and imposed frugality brought on by the war, Dior’s sumptuous, abundant use of fabric—sometimes yards of fabric–wrapped around the wearing in gores and cascades was alarming to the eye. It restored luxury and a flirty femininity to women who had for too long been denied both. Not everyone however was as taken with the style as the fashion flock. In both France and the US, many greeted the New Look with alarm or even hostility—editorials about wastefulness were published in its wake, some wearers of the look were even attacked in the street. In response, some designers purposely designed streamlined alternatives. But it was not to be. The New Look launched a new moment and resistance was futile. The arrival of the New Look in ’47 catapulted Dior to the crest of fashion fame. He was a legend by the end of this his first fashion show.
The Bikini (1946) by Jacques Heim and Louis Reard
The very first bikini, 1946
If Dior and, earlier, Charles James each based their careers on ample bolts of cloth sumptuously unfurled, that was not the issue with the revolutionary bathing suit introduced by Heim, a fashion designer, and Reard, an engineer by training, in France in the early summer of 1946. Though bikini-like garments can be seen depicted on the walls of ancient Roman villas and are in the evidence in the art of Pompeii, there was still, absolutely, something major about this bathing suit split in half and shrunken in size. Certainly there was nothing before ever quite so revealing…certainly not worn outdoors and within polite society. The bikini—which claimed its name from an atoll in the Marshall Island, the onetime location for nuclear bomb testing–was a daring look, yes, but it also is (and remains) something of a double-edged sword. The bikini almost single-handedly introduced a sexual liberation and a sexism, a body-based pride (if you’ve got it, show it!) and a bit of body-based shame. It laid the ground work for not only thousands of later flesh-revealing fashions but also for the fitness and exercise culture that would emerge almost immediately after and which still so strongly exists. Perhaps Vreeland was right all along: the bikini was the biggest thing since the atom bomb.
The Mini Skirt (c. 1955) by Mary Quant
Mary Quant in one of her own famous creations, c. 1964
Though it’s probably impossible to pinpoint the moment the mini was born, most fashion scholars credit its extended use and popularization to designer Mary Quant. Quant was a Brit who made youth-oriented clothes and customized her first mini in the mid-1950s. (One legend has it that the mini came about due to Quant’s limited finances—she could only afford to use so much fabric in each of her dress designs.) However the mini arrived though it had a maxi effect. Revealing that much leg was not what women—proper women!–were supposed to do. Yet, the mini caught on by the 1960s and began being used by other designers including Courreges (who paired them with knee-high boots) and Yves Saint Laurent. Suddenly, mod was the look. And women, especially young women, were choosing how much they showed as they lived new more active lifestyles. Though the mini fell out of fashion for a time in the 1970s as the midi, prairie skirts and feminism took over, the look returned, sometimes with irony attached, in the 1980s. Today, they are a basic staple of nearly every woman’s wardrobe.
The Pouf Skirt (1988) by Christian Lacroix
Lacroix’s famous pouf, 1987
It was the “pouf” heard around the world. In 1986, French designer Christian Lacroix startled the fashion world with the debut of his lavish, puffy poof skirt. Practically a return to the bustle of yore, the short skirt shapes were as extreme as the colors Lacroix chose for them. They were “Dynasty” meets “Alice in Wonderland’s” Mad Tea Party. And as if the grandiose silhouette itself wasn’t enough, Lacroix loved to embellish, toping his designs with lush embroideries, emphasized sleeves, and crazy contrasts of fabrics and prints. And with time, they were the most sought-after looks on both sides of the Atlantic; everyone was wearing Lacroix. But the pouf and some of Lacroix’s other trademarks did not always sit well some members of the fashion press. Then “Vogue” editor-in-chief Grace Mirabella was a very vocal dissenter, accusing the designer of creating costumes, not clothes, and even being “anti-woman.” Though still creating today, many believe Lacroix’s fashion moment has long since passed. For better or worse, the Lacroix aesthetic has come to represent both the glories and the excesses of the 1980s and early ‘90s.