Every '70s Girl Wanted a Gunne Sax

Fads | August 14, 2018

For teens and young women in the 1970s, there was one dress brand that was tops on their list….Gunne Sax! The dress line, owned by designer Jessica McClintock, opened in 1967 in San Francisco and featured formal and semi-formal dresses. The emphasis was on romantic, whimsical, prairie-style and the Gunne Sax name was an updated, sophisticated play on ‘gunnysacks’, a burlap feed bag that was recycled into dresses during the Great Depression. Throughout the seventies, every girl wanted a Gunne Sax. 

Dress Designed Was Inspired By The Past

America’s Bicentennial occurred in 1976, but the whole decade was obsessed with America’s history. One of the biggest fascinations was the pioneer era or westward expansion, that took place in the middle decades of the 1800s. The hugely popular television series, “The Little House on the Prairie” helped to spur on this trend. Seventies people were nostalgic for the pioneer days and sought to mimic them, especially in the way they dressed. Gunne Sax, with their prairie design, and calico and gingham fabric, filled a niche. 

Gunne Sax Dresses were Romantic and Feminine

The 1970s was also an important time for the women’s rights movement with pay equality as one of the biggest social issues of the day. Women were striving to be viewed as indistinguishable from men, especially in the workplace. The Gunne Sax line represented an interesting counter to that idea. While some designer trends of the decade featured business-like, androgynous, and confident styles, the Gunne Sax brand was all about embracing your femininity. Lace, florals, satin ribbons, and ruffles were added to the dresses.

Gunne Sax Dresses were all About the Bodices

A signature look of a Gunne Sax dress was the detailing on the bodice. Some dresses had multiple fabrics and patterns on the front of the dress. Others had all the seams trimmed in lace or ribbon. Most of the dresses had fitted bodices that accentuated the wearer’s figure. Although the necklines were different from design to design, many of them featured laced up, corset-like bodices, a sexy throwback look. 

Gunne Sax Pre-Dated the Maxi Dress

Another hallmark of the Gunne Sax line of dresses was the length. Many of them had hemlines that reached the floor. Because the whole concept of these dresses was to look like peasant attire from one hundred years ago, the skirt length was similar to dress lengths from the 1800s. The skirts were also full and gathered to add to the romantic and carefree feel. 

Gunne Sax drew upon Victorian and Edwardian dress Styles, too

Elements of Victorian and Edwardian dress designed were also incorporated into Gunne Sax dresses of the 1970s. Leg o’mutton sleeves are one of these features. Others included empire waistlines, middle plackets, shift styled dresses, and faux petticoats. Gunne Sax became so good at designing dresses with a Victorian or Edwardian flair, that the company also launched a line of medieval and renaissance costumes for theatre, historical reenactments, tour guides, renaissance fairs, and more. 

Gunne Sax Evolved with the Changing Times

Although Gunne Sax dresses were immensely popular during the seventies, the prairie style fell out of fashion as the decade wore on. Gunne Sax and Jessica McClintock switched gears as the seventies were coming to an end. They left the whimsical, charming prairie and peasant dresses in the past and started a line of formal and semi-formal wear that emphasized prom dresses. Satin and taffeta fabrics replaced the cotton calicos and plaids, and the dresses became shorter, flirtier, and strapless for the new decade of the 1980s. The nostalgic charm of the vintage-looking prairie dresses were left in the seventies. 

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Fashion In The 1970s | Gunne Sax | Women

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.