We’ve been swimming for years in our sleek Old Celine-inspired pants and oversized blazers over t-shirts and cropped tops, and wear sneakers and ballet flats with even our most elegant dresses.
But this season, one old-school player seems to be taking his revenge: the cocktail dress.
The cocktail dress is not the driver of New York Fashion Week. But designers as varied as bohemian Ulla Johnson and bubbly sportswear impresario Victor Glemaud are ushering in his comeback. Even the kind freaks of Eckhaus Latta, Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, are turning out to be sick little numbers.
At Johnson’s show, there was a decidedly refined feeling. Her adorable printed dresses, ruffled with elegant panache, usually feel best for a long afternoon catching up with a friend where a glass of wine turns into three. And if you walk around school in neighborhoods populated by trendy supermoms like Boerum Hill, Tribeca or the Upper East Side, an Ulla dress is pretty much a uniform. Maybe Johnson is attempting to garner some red carpet credits – Ella Emhoff and Katie Holmes were dressed like her and sitting in the front row – but many of the most striking looks were extravagant outfits that looked destined to live outside the press conference, like a exaggerated version of its typical large sleeves and layered skirt, made of shibori fabrics in blue or pale pink and green.
At Glemaud, the dresses were as simple as the best versions of the libation from which the cocktail dress borrows its name. Glemaud cleverly did not overcrowd his collection; in just 30 looks, the designer, clearly operating in sunny deference to Stephen Burrows, gave us the best strapless petticoat of the season in the most perfect pale pink, a cheerful and sexy white minidress with a cap sleeve and a sly exclamation point of a little black dress with a pointed shoulder with straps.
Other great cocktail dresses: Khaite’s ribbed mock neck with a fluttering fringe skirt gathered in graduated sashes and an “I-don’t-care-I’m-so-glamorous” strapless bubble column. But the dress I’ve been thinking about for days is the one worn by artist Susan Cianciolo at the Eckhaus Latta, which had a chubby Issey Miyake-like shape in a muddy wine color with a large piece of silver as armor, showing only the slightest piece of belly. You can see here what makes a good cocktail dress great. It’s sexy. And it’s slightly quirky but isn’t riddled with clippings, jerseys, and other useless ideas. It looks like a party for the woman who wears it.
This is not an elevation or an evolution of the unbridled and expressive way in which young people dress now, a phenomenon that I considered Depop Couture during the spring 2022 fashion shows a year ago. It was all on display in a show like Area, with bold-faced guests and second-row attendees alike in shimmering dresses and nightlife ensembles, to hell with the occasion and time of day. Club dresses are just as good for flexing in the middle of the day as the best Carolina Herrera shirt dress, it is thought. But that way of wearing the clothes is more of an emotional reaction to a world of pain and mania. Young people feel that the world is denying them the kind of stability that is the foundation of basic human happiness; why not claim joy, and even a sense of control, through your clothes? Twenties seem to have feelings for the world as Rihanna said when she won the CFDA’s Fashion Icon Award in 2014: life can be hostile, unwelcome or stimulating, “but [they] can’t beat my dress.
But these dresses seem (to me, anyway) to be more about elegance. Of the pleasures of adulthood, of being a woman and of giving oneself some of the dignity that our political landscape has taken away from us. These are simple and insightful dresses. (This New York Fashion Week had a particular feeling of adult opulence, and not just because I ate a portion of caviar at a Prada dinner on Monday night, which was so filling it made me feel like Sylvia Plath!)
I think many New York designers feel a desire for sophistication among their clients. Again, a handful of great dresses may not define the mood of a collection or season, but that almost makes them more important, because it’s a recognition of a commercial desire for a garment that their customers seem to be looking for, and of a spirituality in need of refinement. These dresses speak to an older woman with more money to spend; a woman interested in a sense, let’s say, of sartorial decor.
This is not to say that comfort is out the window. I saw a staff member at the Puppets and Puppets show who was dressed exactly like I see a lot of cool, sophisticated women dressing up now. She looked in her thirties and wore a very preppy slightly undersized Puppets crewneck sweater with a pair of black lace-trimmed leopard satin swim shorts and very refined Princess Diana almond toe ballet flats. Very united in this unusual and somewhat boyish way. But you might see her change ballet flats to a small Saint Laurent slingback heel and a knotted Eckhaus dress in metallic silver and gold and simply kill it.
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