Fashion can come to us straight off the runways in Paris, Milan, and New York or percolate up from the street, but some of the most recognizable dresses of the last hundred years have been disseminated, if not originated, via pop culture.
The combination of stunning clothes and strong characters can result in iconic garments that persist in our collective consciousness for years, giving them a staying power well past that of most high-fashion trends.
In my book The Hundred Dresses, a field guide to dress archetypes, I include more than a dozen iconic dresses from pop culture. Here are a few of my favorites:
Although we usually think of Bond Girls wearing barely-there bikinis, 007’s lady friends and foes were no slouches in the evening-gown competition, either. A low-cut and high-slit gown is as much a part of the Bond Girl’s arsenal as Bond’s Walther PPK, and needs no silencers (since it tends to strike onlookers dumb as a matter of course). The Bond Girl dress is accessorized with a thigh holster and a fatal weakness for Bond’s charm.
The cup of coffee, the pastry, the sunglasses, and the “slim cool black dress”: is there any dress of stage or screen more charmingly louche, more effortlessly elegant than the dress Audrey Hepburn wears in <em>Breakfast at Tiffany’s</em>? I call the Breakfast at Tiffany’s dress the 800-pound-gorilla of little black dresses. It can go anywhere it wants and do anything it wants, and we’re all just happy to be along for the ride.
If you happen to be thrown into a strange land full of Munchkins and flying monkeys, you might as well be wearing a practical and pretty gingham dress while you struggle to make your way back home. The Dorothy dress, like Dorothy herself, may be unsophisticated (if not downright countrified) but it has enough heart and gumption to get you through any number of adventures and, eventually, back to the people who love you.
The sweatshirt-turned-dress worn by Jennifer Beals in <em>Flashdance </em>is all about making the difficult (that dancing! that welding! Keeping a dress hanging perfectly off one shoulder all the time!) look effortless. You’re tough but feminine; you’re sexy but casual; you’re probably wearing something neon.
The classic June Cleaver (of <em>Leave it to Beaver</em>) shirtdress (with or without a plate of cookies, a vacuum cleaner, or an apron) was the business suit of the television housewife. Trim, collared, conservative: it was the way to dress for success in the home. Today this dress conveys more nostalgia than authority, but if you disrespect it … well, just wait until your father gets home!
Quite possibly the sexiest dress in human history, the white pleated halter worn by Marilyn Monroe in <em>The Seven Year Itch </em>would make any woman feel like a bombshell, and made Marilyn Monroe’s apotheosis into sex goddess complete.
Party in the front, bride in the back: the mullet dress worn in the music video for Guns N’ Roses "November Rain" video (worn by model Stephanie Seymour) makes it very clear: you may be getting married, but there will be no “settling down.” Turn it up!
Although it’s the movie incarnation of the dress that we remember (and that Carol Burnett so hilariously parodied) the way Margaret Mitchell describes the moment that Scarlett finds the solution to her sartorial dilemma has always been a favorite: “The moss-green curtains felt prickly and soft beneath her cheek and she rubbed her face against them gratefully, like a cat. And then suddenly she looked at them.” The Scarlett O’Hara dress is all about being open to the opportunities in front of you, and seizing them.
The Titanic dress goes on, and on, and on, with a run as long and as successful as the movie that gave it birth. The ship and Jack may have been doomed, but Rose’s dress stands out as a triumph of movie costuming, and dancing on in thousands of reproductions worn by less star-crossed lovers.