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Diane von Furstenberg's Wrap Dress: '70s Disco-Ready Feminist Fashion

Culture | December 31, 2020

Diane von Furstenberg on the cover of Newsweek, March 22, 1976. Source: Pinterest

The wrap dress created by Diane von Furstenberg is arguably the most important women's clothing item of the '70s and it remains fashionable today. It's simple, flattering and versatile -- women could literally wear it to the office and to a nightclub. With the wrap dress, women had a fashionable outfit that exuded confident femininity and feminist swagger. It was also easy and comfortable to wear -- and "easy" and "comfort" had always been a priority for men's clothing and a dream of women. It was empowering at a time when women were eager to toss the hassles and expectations foisted, by tradition and the patriarchy, upon their mothers' generation.

Much of the fashion, even professional attire, of the Mad Men era and earlier, was geared toward making women appealing to the male gaze, at any cost, whether it required complex, uncomfortable undergarments, cruel shoes, movement-restricting designs, or obsessive matching of components and accessories. Rather than presenting a woman as an elaborate and passive confection, Diane von Furstenberg placed the premium on what was best for the women who'd actually wear it, and their new assertiveness in the professional and social arenas. 

Von Furstenberg, who is still an active and influential designer today, rose to fashion eminence on the strength of the iconic dress. The hip-hugging dress that complimented ladies of all figures and fit in any social situation gained instant popularity and a strong celebrity following.

Diane von Furstenberg became so iconic that there are museum exhibits for it. (dotellanabel)

Fashion often comes in cycles. But for Diane von Furstenberg, also known as DVF, it began as a revolution. The iconic designer arrived in New York City with a suitcase full of jersey dresses and a dream. The dresses were made in Angelo Ferretti’s Italian factory and von Furstenberg hailed from Belgium. However, she first gained notoriety by marrying into German royalty and the House of Furstenberg. 

Of her intentions with the garment, she told SCPR:

All I want is, I think that through the dress, my message is to always tell women that they can be and they should be the woman they want to be. What we do is celebrate freedom and empower women, and sell confidence, because at the end it's the confidence that makes you beautiful."\

Instant Success

From a Duchess to a Hollywood star, DVF dresses always shine. (ca.hellomagazine)

Von Furstenberg’s wrap dress instantly connected with women all over the world, marrying a stylish fashion with sensible simplicity. Like most great inventions, the wrap dress wasn’t initially a dress at all. According to DVF, “It started as a wrap top and skirt, and I thought it would make a simple and sexy dress. I had no idea it would be such a phenomenon. It was so effortless, and it allowed women to go to work and still feel like women…I used to travel all over the country, meeting someone in different cities and helping them to tie their wrap dresses. I could always see the way it changed a woman once she put it on…It was a very empowering thing for me, and for them.”

Flying Off The Racks

From sexy to reserved the wrap dress can do it all. (wholesale7)

At the peak of DVF’s wrap dress, 25,000 were bought weekly. Acclaimed designer Halston, who, like Brazilian soccer stars goes by a single name, understood the invigorating power of the wrap dress: “Free love is everywhere,” he said. So was the wrap, the decade’s enabler, which addressed the needs of the working and newly liberated woman. “You put it on and you looked like an icon”

The Every Woman’s Dress That Made Women Feel Like Royalty

Amy Adams showed off a number of DVF dresses in the 70’s set “American Hustle.” (marieclaire)

A major part of DVF’s slip-on, slip-off dress’ success came in its versatility. Women could wear it to work, cocktail parties, or a casual night on the town. It embodied everything women were for looking for in a dress. It certainly didn’t hurt that the fashion-forward item didn’t cost an arm and a leg either. As DVF put it, “Simplicity and sexiness, that’s what people want, at a price that’s not outrageous.”

Celebrity Must Have Item

Cybill Shepherd helped put DVF’s wrap dress on the map. (pinterest)

DVF’s wrap dress undoubtedly stood on its own. Whether Cybill Shepherd wowed wearing one in Taxi Driver or if a celebrity never took a liking to it, the wrap dress would have thrived. However, it never hurts to have the most stylish, beautiful women who also happen to be celebrities obsess over your dresses like teens on tik tok. No matter if it was Shepherd in ‘75 or Duchess of Cambridge in 2014, DVF’s wrap dress has spanned decades, multiple fashion cycles, and continues empowering women with various cuts for every occasion. 

Power To Women Everywhere

The iconic designer who built a fashion empire around an empowering dress. (shefinds)

Not only could DVF’s dress imbue women of every form to feel beautiful but her backstory and her commitment to forwarding female philanthropy should put her in the feminist hall of fame. Despite marrying into high society, Furstenberg never lapped in the life of luxury.

As she put it, "The minute I knew I was about to be Egon's wife, I decided to have a career. I wanted to be someone of my own, and not just a plain little girl who got married beyond her deserts." Despite being a princess, she arrived in New York with just a suitcase full of dresses and little understanding of how the fashion industry worked. 40 years later DVF dresses still stand the test of time. 

Source: metmuseum.org

Von Furstenberg's creation received the ultimate cultural seal of approval when, in 1998, an early example was added to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection, as part of an exhibit called "American Ingenuity." Here's what the museum says of its significance and appeal:

A climax to the American sportswear wrapping tradition came in the 1970s via the sensation of Von Furstenberg's wrap dress. Its fundamental form was already deeply embedded in the American designer sportswear tradition; a new woman designer translated the style into 1970s fabrics and colors, generally brighter, bolder, and more synthetic (and stretchy) than the early examples to which the silhouette and design principle are indebted.

The Dress Was The Catalyst That Enabled A Long Career In Fashion

Designer Diane Von Furstenberg poses wearing one of her signature wrap dresses. Photo by JOHN SCIULLI. Source: SCPR.org

She told Southern California Public Radio:

I always treated this little dress, you know how you treat something from your family and you take it for granted? And yet she gave me everything. She is the dress. She gave me my freedom, my independence, paid for all my bills, gave me fame, gave me confidence, gave me success, changed my life, and changed so many women's lives, over 40 years. But I never honored her, and sometimes I almost resented her, because whenever you see Diane von Furstenberg, you always say wrap dress, but you know, I have designed many other things.

Tags: Diane Von Furstenberg | Fashion | Fashion In The 1970s | Feminism

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!