Diane von Furstenberg's reputation began with one dress, the wrap. Introduced in 1973, von Furstenberg's signature dress is a one-piece wrap style that crosses in the front and ties at the waist. Figure hugging and made of synthetic or silk jersey knit in bright, colorful prints, the dress was meant to be tightly wrapped. Though von Furstenberg certainly didn't invent the wrap style, her version embodied the zeitgeist of the early 1970s. By 1975, her manufacturer was producing 15,000 dresses each week.
Von Furstenberg's wrap dress stemmed from a belief "that women wanted a fashion option besides hippie clothes, bell-bottoms, and stiff pantsuits that hid their femininity."1 These styles, all popular in the early 1970s, attempted to minimize sartorial distinctions between men and women. In reaction to the prevalence of these unisex looks, von Furstenberg created "simple little sexy dresses that made women feel like women."2 Based on the overwhelming popularity of her wrap dress, von Furstenberg was correct in assuming that women wanted something that emphasized the feminine form.
On March 22, 1976, von Furstenberg was featured in a Newsweek cover story. The cover image pictures Diane von Furstenberg wearing a slim shirtdress in the same green and cream, stylized twig print as the dress pictured above. (This image, scanned from a negative, is a bit blurry. Sorry readers...we'll do better next time!) Not a true wrap, our version features a surplice front, a slightly fitted waistline and an attached self-fabric belt. Though von Furstenberg is nearly synonymous with the wrap dress, she also designed other "little sexy dresses" along with pants, shirts and skirts. No matter the garment type, it was always produced in patterned jersey knit. All of von Furstenberg's designs, were priced intentionally low. In 1975, a cloud or tulip printed wrap dress was priced at $84, about $340 today.
Though the wrap dress probably appeared decidedly new in 1973, fashion scholars have linked it to casual sportswear created by American designers like Claire McCardell and Bonnie Cashin, among others. A hallmark of 20th century American design has been an insistence on style paired with practicality. Though von Furstenberg describes her dress as sexy, it is also intended to be an easy wearing style that flatters, rather than overwhelms, the woman herself. These characteristics, paired with its washability and reasonable price, marks von Furstenberg's iconic dress as a descendant of mid-twentieth century American designers.
In 1997, the wrap experienced a tremendous revival in popularity. In the late 1970s, von Furstenberg stopped producing her wrap dresses due to market saturation. Instead, she moved into cosmetics, fragrance, luggage, etc. In 1997, fashion zeroed in the 1970s, bringing the wrap dress back into the fashion spotlight. Von Furstenberg reopened her company, producing almost exactly the same style of dress as she had in the 1970s. Once again, the wrap was wildly successful, attracting a wide-range of consumers and spawning numerous knock-offs.
The success of the reissued wrap is credited with starting a trend to revitalize iconic, yet moribund, brands like Frye, Cork-Ease, LeSportsac and others. Why look to the past instead of creating something new? For the consumer who purchased a DVF wrap dress or a pair of Frye boots the first time around, seeing these brands again creates a nostalgia for times past. For the younger consumer, its a different sort of nostalgia, one liked to a belief that the past is inherently more glamourous and appealing than the present.
1 Von Furstenberg, Diane with Linda Bird Francke. Diane: A Signature Life. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1998: 74.