When is a dress more than a dress? When it becomes a message written in silk, cotton and thread. Veronica Horwell works out what makes some outfits unforgettable, and selects the greatest

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012

One hundred years ago, there was no such thing as a dress. At least, not as we think of it today: a single, head-to-toe-or-knee piece of fashion frippery. It was only when the avant-garde of the early 1900s got hold of the chemise—for a millennium merely a sweat-absorbing, washable inner layer—that, a bit like Madonna in Jean Paul Gaultier’s bra-tops, underwear turned into must-have outerwear.

Since then, the dress has changed and changed again, granting, as does no other garment, an immediate insight into the social structure that produced it: the way we wore the way we were. And though many of the dresses of the past century have been only flimsy defences against the world—exposing the body to criticism as well as the elements—they are still believed to have an immediate transformative effect. Wear a dress, and you shall go to the ball—or down the red carpet, or up the aisle. No old woman is going to reminisce about her best coat; but she’s almost obliged to be nostalgic for her old frocks.

Few dresses, historically, were single garments. Post-medievally, women were collaged from multiple parts that added up to a whole. Elizabeth I’s splendiferous 1588 Armada portrait “dress” (right) was in fact rigged from more than a dozen components—including skirt, underskirt, undersleeves and winglike oversleeves, gold-embroidered and supplemented with mounted gems—temporarily attached to a bodice. Her wardrobe crew bought thousands of new pins every few months to hold the whole together, not very securely—pins must have pinged on the floor whenever she moved. It was meant to be overwhelming when viewed from afar—across a cathedral or court. As a theatrical triumph, it is unsurpassed because of its discipline: a modern eye still reads it as a “dress” with consistent imagery in Liz’s signature black, white and gold.

Before the 20th century, what we now see as a simple one-piece dress was usually a disjointed bodice and skirt—such as the black satin gown flaunted in 1883 by Virginie Gautreau, billed by her portraitist John Singer Sargent as “Madame X”. Gautreau was a New Orleans belle, the faithless wife to a Parisian banker, and expert in artifice (she used stage cosmetics—then thought whorish—eyebrow pencil and lilac-tinted powder). Singer Sargent persuaded her to pose in the dress, possibly made by the Parisian couturier Charles Worth, or his rival Emile Pingat: whichever, it was a stunner. The silhouette of the early 1880s was narrow, but Gautreau demanded something even narrower, and alarmingly untrimmed. The dress had the fashionable cuirass, or armoured, bodice, held up by a bone armature. Most women added a decent froth of frill over the shoulders; Gautreau pared it back to vestigial straps. It was this that was the shocker when the portrait was displayed in the Paris Salon. There she stood, sans long gloves or mitigating wrap, so provocative—and worse, a strap had slithered off her shoulder. A slut in her shift! Gautreau dented what reputation she had. Singer Sargent decamped from Paris to London. He tautened the strap, but it was too late for both.

That’s the risk of the going-for-broke dress—when the reaction doesn’t go to plan, it can break the wearer. The best literary, and movie, dress uses this failure as a plot point: Margaret Mitchell knew Yankee embargoes in the civil war had left southern women drably clad, and she had experienced the make-do-and-mend of Depression poverty. This informed her scene in “Gone With the Wind” in which Scarlett O’Hara, scrabbling by in ruined Tara, improvises a gown from her mother’s velvet curtains. Scarlett needs to charm $300 from Rhett Butler to pay taxes on Tara, and uses every retrieved scrap of the curtains, even the fringe, for a dress. The outfit restores Scarlett’s sense of her seductiveness, and Rhett is conned – until he registers her workworn hands, and denies her plea. Walter Plunkett, designing for the film, bleached sun-faded streaks into the velvet and used a tasselled tieback as a girdle; Bob Mackie, pastiching the movie for Carol Burnett’s television show, had Scarlett vamp Rhett wearing the curtain pole as well.

Picture: (top, left) Charles James’s “Four-Leaf Clover”, 1953, was worn to a coronation and outshone the queen; (top, centre) Claire McCardell’s “Popover”, 1942, was America’s sharp, democratic response to war-work; (top, right) Yves St Laurent’s “Mondrian”, 1965, a primary-coloured poster for modernism. (Below) Elizabeth I’s “The Armada Portrait”, 1588; a long-distance call to attention