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 By the late 1970s, it had become associated with the unfashionable and out of date (such as Mrs.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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Books in Brief: “Hollywood Before Glamour: Fashion in American Silent Film”

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If you could see the stack of books on my ‘to do list’ you might run for the hills, but you also might sit down for a good long read. There are some great reviews ahead – so keep an eye out. First up is Hollywood Before Glamour: Fashion in American Silent Film by Michelle Tolini Finamore. Released earlier this year, it has been on my to do list the longest, and here are some brief notes about it’s contents.

Nearly 300 compact pages of academic scholarship cover the 1900s through the 1930s in 6 thematic essays (plus an introduction). Not surprisingly, much of the work discusses Lady Duff Gordon (or Lucile), and also includes an entire chapter on the designer Peggy Hamilton.

It also includes discussions of American Fashion design on film during World War I, and the rise of the ‘specialist’ costume designer (including Adrian, Andre-Ani, Travis Banton, Howard Greer, Iribe, Mitchell Leisen, Max Ree, and Sophie Wachner – though noticeably absent is Natacha Rambova.) Actor’s who provided their own wardrobes for modern films, and the marketing potential that came out of that is also explored. The book is well researched, but is not meant to be a comprehensive study of the era. It remains a helpful resource.

*Anna Moore/Lillian Gish wearing negligee in Way Down East (United Pictures 1920, director D.W. Griffith). Photo by Bain News Service, new York. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.)

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Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood icon was styled by William Travilla

Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled by William Travilla

By Andrew Hansford with Karen Homer

(Applause Theatre & Cinema Books)

What I found unique about this book was not the abundant photographs, or costume illustrations depicting a glamorous Marilyn – that was to be expected. What I didn’t expect was the level to which that glamor was removed, and the details of the real objects described and illustrated. Author Andrew Hansford is the manager of the William Travilla archive, and like a true archivist, is interest lies in the ‘state of the artifact’.

A typical detail layout from Dressing Marilyn by Andrew Hansford

It’s a gem of a book for anyone interested in the real objects of popular culture: depicting not only the beautiful ‘idealized’ garments, but also the state they are in today, including rips, stains, holes, and even lipstick marks. Most books that include collection images don’t include what goes on the condition reports. For this alone, I love this book.

Dressing Marilyn begins with a biography of designer William Travilla, who created costumes for Marilyn onscreen and off, and follows with two+ page spreads on seven of Marilyn’s most famous film costumes, followed by two smaller sections titled ‘personal dresses’ and ‘further classics’. Each of the seven costumes is explored and discussed in-depth, both photographically as well as with historical research, documentation,  and text. It truly is a marvelous resource for anyone looking to hunt down the details of Marilyn Monroe’s wardrobe and film costume history.

For more, see the review by Kate Finnegan in the UK Telegraph.

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Historic Costume in California State Parks: Charmian London

Charmian London, ca 1910 (Via California State Parks)

This weekend, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture and tour of Charmian London’s clothing collection at the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, CA – organized through the Western Region of the Costume Society of America.

Jack and Charmian London circa 1911, possibly at Beauty Ranch. (click for source)

Those in attendance were treated to a lecture by Jo Ann Stabb, who conducted an assessment of this collection of over 100 artifacts in 2002-3 for the California State Parks. Several pieces from the collection were on display at the Sonoma Developmental Center, including some lovely theater coats, evening shoes, a lace blouse and an evening dress. The lecture highlighted Charmian’s independent spirit and outgoing nature, and drew links between her wardrobe and the larger fashion world of each era.

Many of the garments in her collection draw strong correlations with the House of Lucille and with Paul Poiret- though it’s not likely that she purchased items from these makers. Jack London’s mother was an accomplished seamstress, as was Charmian herself.

At various times Charmian’s style was inspired by the Aesthetic Movement and Art Nouveau (especially during her bohemian days in Berkeley and Oakland), and often by her travels abroad with Jack (including trips to Hawaii and the tropics, where she would don Mother Hubbard style dresses and Kimono’s). Japanese, African and other ethnic influences can certainly be found in extant photos and clothing pieces in the collection. Not surprisingly, she had a love of fur – especially trimming hats and garments (reminiscent of Lucille).

The incredibly informative and well attended lecture was followed by lunch and a visit to the Jack London State Historic Park to see the House of Happy Walls (where Charmian’s closets were on view). Park Rangers were on hand to answer our questions, and a park volunteer played music on Charmian London’s piano – much to the delight of the visitors. (For more of my photos from this event, see the gallery at the end)

Charmian London in Berkeley Bohemian attire circa 1909.

What made this event all the more bittersweet was the news that came out last Friday: that the Jack London State Historic Park is one of many on a proposed list of park closures due to a $22 million California general fund budget cut. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, those closures are expected to begin in September and have already been approved by the California Legislature.

It will be the first time in California’s history, including during the Great Depression, that state parks have closed because of budget cuts and parks that remain open also will have reduced services.”

Proposed parks to be cut (Via CSP)

What isn’t obvious to many, is that some of these parks also house historic collections of costumes and textiles (as well as other artifacts) – and access to these collections would also be diminished.  Along with Jack London SP, and close to my heart, the Fisher Hanlon House (a historic home in Benicia Capitol State Historic Park) has a costume collection and would also be closed.

Benicia is my hometown, and my first experience with a historic costume collection was at the Fisher Hanlon House. According to one parks employee “Parks that do end up being closed will be in a caretaker status, and the collections will still be preserved.”  While officials weren’t able to confirm which parks had historic costume and textile collections, they indicated that the Governor’s Mansion and Leland Stanford Mansion both include displays of historic dress. Upon further research, it seems that the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park also has historic costume, and is scheduled to close in September (For a complete list of California collections housing historic costumes and textiles, see Clothing And Textile Collections in the United States: A Csa Guide).

Now if you want to do something to help preserve these collections that are important to California’s History, I’d advise a donation:

Click here to donate to the California State Parks Foundation

Gallery of Photos:

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