Revisiting a “mini history of the maxi dress”

Jezebel is re-promoting a maxi dress article they published in 2015 that mentions something I’d written on the subject from 2008.  The 1,000+ comments (and counting) on that post are a gold-mine in terms of how attitudes have changed in just four short years.) In the nearly 11 years since I wrote on the maxi, the dress has maintained its perennial prominence in the summer zeitgeist. In my article for Monica Sklar’s former Worn Through blog, I said

Geraldine Chaplin as Tonya in “Dr. Zhivago”. Phyllis Dalton received an Oscar in 1965 for best costume designer.

“One of the earliest appearances of the “Maxi-Dress” was in 1968. The New York Times highlighted a cotton lace version by Oscar de La Renta he created for Elizabeth Arden Salon. More notable designers such as YSL, Dior, Cardin, Biba, Halston, and others would latch on to the style as well. Maxi-lengthed skirts had begun to outdo the mini skirt in 1967, and the dress (as well as the maxi coat) soon followed. Maxi styles quickly grabbed hold in London. Doctor Zhivago (1965) is often credited with igniting the craze for the Maxi style (along with the tandem trend for ‘Midi’ style skirts) due to its use of large flared coats over suit trousers. However, it was not until the 1970s that the maxi dress lodged itself firmly in the American mind (in all its polyester splendor), along with similar caftan and boho styles. By the late 1970s, it had become associated with the unfashionable and out of date (such as Mrs. Roper on Three’s Company)”

But there is more to this story than that, as I recently found out.

As I noted in 2008, the maxi style in general, got its start in popular culture with Doctor Zhivago in 1965. Set in pre-revolutionary Russia, costume designer Phyllis Dalton created  “Cossack blouses with neckband collars and wide billowy sleeves, and coats trimmed with fur from head to toe; and the maxi, or ankle-length, skirt” (Halsey 1986, 595). The film was released theatrically on Dec 22, 1965.

A short seven days later, on December 29, 1965, a little-known Parisian couturier named Jacques Syma photographed what might be considered an early version of a maxi dress as a part of his forthcoming spring collection.

Geraldine Chaplin in “Doctor Zhivago” 1965 MGM Cinema Publishers Collection
Dec. 29, 1965 – Noticing her youth and charm, Jacques Syma chose Laura Ulmer, daughter of the famous author and composer Georges Ulmer, as his inspiration for his Spring collection. ”Merida”, a long toile sleeveless dress with a large stripe along the hemline and a smaller stripe higher up, is low-cut in the back. (Credit Image: Keystone Pictures USA/ZUMAPRESS)

In March 1966, the Paris Spring collections appeared in Vogue magazine, and the cover showed Barbra Streisand in a floral print maxi. Inside, Paris showed off its Spring couture in a fashion feature photographed by Richard Avedon, and including many long dresses worn by models and actresses Jean Shrimpton, Marisa Berenson, Minnie Cushing, Françoise Rubartelli and Geraldine Chaplain (one of the stars of Doctor Zhivago) designed by Balmain, Lanvin, and Ricci. (“Fashion: THE YUM-YUM TREE IN PARIS.” 1966. and Delvin 1966). These dresses were in stark contrast to the mini-skirts and micro-mini’s popular at the time.

Lanvin and Ricci designed long dresses from Vogue, March 1966.

One of the first time the word ‘maxi’ appeared in American newspapers was a July 1966 syndicated report from Paris focused on Jacques Syma‘s collection that included the micro-mini skirt and its counterpart the maxi skirt. It appeared in newspapers across the United States (De la Fontaine 1966), helping to spread the style(s) further. Laura Ulmer, Syma’s counter-part was a model, singer, and YeYe Girl (Young, camp-y, French Pop icons of the 1960s)  (Deluxe 2013).

The New York Times later explained that the maxi began “gaining ground” alongside the mini on the streets of New York and Paris beginning in 1966 (Emerson 1968, E4). It became a part of the 1960s Youthquake and had been established in the mainstream by the 1970s. Some might argue that it’s trajectory and popularity coincided with the feminist movement of the era. It would make sense then, to see it re-emerge (and have staying power) in the current cultural climate.


Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her new book, Artifacts from American Fashion is forthcoming in 2020 from ABC-CLIO.  More posts by the Author »

 

 

Further Information:

Halsey, William Darrach and Emanuel Friedman. 1986. Collier’s Encyclopedia, with Bibliography and Index, Volume 9. Macmillan Educational Company. Accessed April 1, 2019. https://books.google.com/books?id=KMUJAAAAIAAJ&q=Dr.+zhivago+maxi+dress&dq=Dr.+zhivago+maxi+dress&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiA9pGj9a_hAhUTO30KHX_tDlcQ6AEIPjAE.

“Fashion: THE YUM-YUM TREE IN PARIS.” 1966. Vogue, Mar 15, 78-78, 79, 80, 81. http://ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.montclair.edu/docview/897870673?accountid=12536.

Devlin, Polly. 1966. “Fashion & Features: INSTANT BARBRA.” Vogue, Mar 15, 68-68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 152, 154. http://ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.montclair.edu/docview/897870648?accountid=12536.

de la Fontaine, Yvette. 1966. “Hemlines are Long-long, Short-short.” Women’s News Service. July 22. https://www.newspapers.com/image/144995582/?terms=%22Maxi%2Bskirt%22

de la Fontaine, Yvette.1966. “‘Ye-Ye’ Modes Favorites in Paris.” Women’s News Service. Jan. 16. https://www.newspapers.com/image/144160376/?terms=%22Jacques%2BSyma%22

Emerson, Gloria. 1968. “Fashion: Alas! The Poor Mini.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Feb 04, 1. http://ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.montclair.edu/docview/118326156?accountid=12536.

Deluxe, Jean-Emmanuel. 2013. Yé-yé!: the girls of ’60s & ’70s French pop music. Los Angeles, California: Feral House.

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