I’ve fallen in love with many dresses over the years, though few have been my own. The list is lengthy: Marilyn Monroe’s nude cocktail dress, which she wore in the role of beguiling ukulele-playing Sugar Kane in the 1959 slapstick comedy Some Like It Hot; the midnight blue fishtail gown Natalie Wood performed her first striptease in in Gypsy; the $6,000 black sequin cocktail dress Melanie Griffith borrowed in Working Girl when she first meets, and completely enchants, Harrison Ford; and pretty much every dress worn by the wonderful Lauren Bacall in How to Marry a Millionaire.
These dresses have become as iconic as the movies in which they featured and as beloved as the actresses who wore them. Why? Because they embody the kind of glamour we all ache to inhabit even once in our lives. The late, great street style photographer Bill Cunningham famously said, “Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life.” If this is true, then a dress is your weapon of choice when you want to, not just survive it, but soar above it. Clothes have transformative powers, and no item more so than The Perfect Dress. Perhaps it’s those deeply imbedded childhood memories of Cinderella that have imbued dresses with almost mythological powers – from kitchen girl to belle of the ball by way of a sweetheart neckline and tulle skirt.
Clothes, at their best, allow us to experiment with different personas, to become someone entirely new. Do you remember the Vogue bridal photo shoot in the first Sex and the City movie? Carrie was utterly transformed from romantic bride in Vera Wang to sultry bride in Christian Lacroix with several incarnations in between. In Wang, Carrie lay elegantly among a floral display, mirroring the softness of the dress in her posture and expression. In the corseted Lacroix gown, she looked sensuous. A dress is more than just a costume, it’s a state of mind. The wedding-averse Carrie was carried away on the crest of a bridal wave when she received the gift of a Vivienne Westwood gown. As she said herself about what was supposed to be a small, intimate affair, “The dress upped the ante.” The Perfect Dress has the power to bestow a kind of invincibility that will make anything possible. It’s the ultimate confidence-booster, for body and mind.
There’s a time in every woman’s life when only a dress will do – a wedding often, a red carpet event for the lucky few, a first Holy Communion for most of us. Even those devoted to wearing trousers (like me) will have had at least one “dress moment” in their lives. Mine goes back many years to when I was invited to a friend’s pre-Debs (do they still exist?). In the spirit of Scarlett O’ Hara, my sister thought that it would be a terrific idea to make my dress from the dining room curtains. The material was a fabulous metallic green raw silk, and the 1960s-inspired shift my mother created made me feel (for the first time) as if I was all those things a girl longs to be at 16, but believes she is not – stylish, attractive, unique. Regardless of the emotional mess you may think you are inside, The Perfect Dress can change everything. That night was like my very own coming out. The said friend became my boyfriend and everybody admired me in that dress. Most importantly, I loved myself in it.
The other great thing about a dress? It’s just a single piece. On a purely practical level, you can literally dress and go. The trick is simply choosing the correct one. But when you do, “[you] have no need to be perfect or even beautiful. The dress will do that for [you].” So said Cristobal Balenciaga, founder of the iconic French fashion house, about his own stunning creations. If you haven’t had your own “dress moment” yet, read on for an edit of the best dresses in stores and online now.
Velour cut-out shoulder dress, €79 at & Other Stories