Gunne Sax's aesthetic has been described as feminine, nostalgic, Victorian, old world and romantic. Though the brand is now closely associated with formal and bridal wear, its origins date back to late '60s San Francisco. In 1969, San Francisco boutique Gunne Sax needed a house designer. Enter Jessica McClintock, an elementary school teacher with a life-long interest in fashion. When a friend told McClintock of the opening at Gunne Sax, she applied immediately. In a testament to the freewheeling spirit of 1960s San Francisco, McClintock was hired despite her lack of formal training in fashion design or clothing manufacture. In the beginning, McClintock designed small collections of about 20 garments. Within a few months the San Francisco department store I. Magnin started retailing Gunne Sax dresses. The mood of Gunne Sax was based on McClintock's personal vision: "I brought to [Gunne Sax] my own concept of clothing based on romance--nostalgia created by a mixture of prints, ribbons, laces, muslins and braids. It was 1969, the "mini" era was ending, and the Gunne Sax "Country," "Edwardian," and "Prairie" era was beginning."1
Sometimes referred to as Granny or prairie dresses, a typical Gunne Sax dress of the early 1970s featured a banded Empire waist and a long maxi-skirt. Lace trim, high collars and long sleeves evoked an amalgam of past eras and created an overall impression of demure femininity. A 1971 advertisement for a flower-printed cotton voile Gunne Sax dress captured the company's aesthetic: "...bringing back memories of yesteryear, in a dress of total charm and innocence."2 The laced bodice and pink quilted insert of the Gunne Sax dress pictured above suggest popular conceptions of medieval dress. The sumptuous gown portrayed in this 15th century tapestry is an example of the style that might have inspired this Gunne Sax dress.
Though Gunne Sax dresses suggested the past, they were constructed from thoroughly modern materials. Most Gunne Sax dresses were made from cotton and/or synthetic fibers like polyester, acetate, nylon or rayon. In the pink and white dress above, the pink quilted panel and the lace trim are synthetic. The use of inexpensive, easy-clean materials meant that a Gunne Sax dress was both washable and affordable.
Gunne Sax's target customer was a young woman in her teens or twenties. Marketing materials featured small groups of young women, often with long, slightly wavy hair parted in the middle. Gunne Sax dresses could be purchased from a variety of youth-oriented boutiques, including the Young Circle Dress Collections (Sak’s Fifth Avenue) and Young Attitude Dresses (Bullock's). By 1975, Gunne Sax had introduced a prom collection with the same storybook feel as its day dresses. Lingerie and children's collections soon followed. A line of patterns in conjunction with Simplicity allowed customers to sew their own Gunne Sax dress.
Though based on McClintock's specific ideas about romance and nostalgia, the overall aesthetic can be linked to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Long hemlines had emerged in the late 1960s, a counterculture revolt against the 1960s miniskirt. This same counterculture also legitimized the incorporation of diverse sources into fashion: non-western, historic, and highly individual combinations of influences and garment intermingled in street and runway fashion. Our 1969 Giorgio di Sant' Angelo Klimt dress exemplifies this trend as does this late '60s menswear ensemble. Gunne Sax dresses, with their mix of vaguely historic elements, demonstrate this aspect of late '60s and early '70s fashion.
This pink and black floral print dress trimmed with lace is a classic Gunne Sax prairie dress. Similar dresses and skirts, with a variety of trim and detail, were produced into the 1980s. The small-scale floral patterns and high-neck are borrowed from the printed calico house and work dresses worn in the early 20th century. During this same era, calico was also used for young girl's dresses. The darker palette is typical of later 1970s Gunne Sax dresses.
1 Ballis, Douglas. California Designers: Art and Style. USA: Peregrine Smith Books. 1987: 104.
2 "Advertisement." Los Angeles Times. 15 Oct. 1971: G9.