What do the following scenarios all have in common?
In 2004, a (perhaps) ridiculous number of Australian women stayed up way past their bedtime to watch and comment on the wedding of Tasmanian born Mary Donaldson to Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark, and in 2010 bookmakers offered odds on the designer of Kate Middleton’s wedding dress when she marries Prince William later this year.
Rebecca Twigley caused a sensation at the 2004 Brownlow medal in “that dress” a red gown by Ruth Tarvydas featuring a neckline that plunged to the waist.
I know that one year, Julia Roberts wore a Vintage black and white Valentino gown to the Oscars, but I can’t for the life of me remember what film she won an award for.
I made a blue brocade bodice and silver skirt with flat blue shoes (because I am so tall) to wear to my school formal and I have made three wedding dresses for my girlfriends over the years, they have five children between them and two of them are still married.
All of these scenarios have to do with dresses. Big, important occasion dresses whose memorial durability far outlasts their active wardrobe life. I call them all “Red Carpet” dresses because to me “Red Carpet” describes an out of the ordinary event that one prepares for with the consciousness that they will be subjected to an unusual level of scrutiny.
The other point about these scenarios is that they have to do with narrative. There is a story in all of the statements that is told either about the dress or through the dress. There are also two types of narrators in the examples above. There is a self reflective narrative, what I wore, what happened and how I felt about it, and there is an observational narrative that is also self reflective, what they wore and how that affected me.
A dress is a lovely item to construct a narrative around. It is rich in description. Technical proficiency is not necessary because there are a myriad of colloquial descriptors such as shimmery, shiny, princess like… The role of occasion dresses in important milestones mean that stories about them speak of broader themes. As well as a personal narrative, a dress can become a collective cultural narrative. It is through the collective consumption and telling of multiple stories about a dress that we describe, reach consensus and define cultural norms and moral standards.
Of course any garment can be a narrative so I’ve tried to find other research to support and explain my hypothesis that a dress is a particular type of garment…with little success. There are many books that describe the different types of evening dresses such as cocktail dress, dinner dress, ball dress. These tend toward historical classification that has little to do with the contemporary uses of occasionwear. For example, the celebrity red carpet dress is one type of dress that really should be understood as a category in its own right. It has had an interesting evolution and has today a broad popular culture influence and appeal. An analysis of recent haute couture collections by designers such as Elie Saab and Valentino suggests that designers are designing a significant part, if not all of their haute couture collection specifically for the red carpet. For these designers the category “red carpet” is far more relevant to their collection than “cocktail dress”. I also believe that if I ask someone today to tell me the difference between a “school formal dress” and a “bridesmaid dress” they will tell me a far more elaborate story about social norms and taboos than if I ask them to distinguish between a “ball gown” and a “dinner dress”.
And yet this still does not answer the question as to why a dress tells a better story than any other garment, why it is consistently the focus of museum exhibitions, haute couture collections, the garment of choice for the biggest celebrity photo opportunities and for our most significant rites of passage.
Understanding what a dress is not is perhaps the best way to understand what it is. A dress is not the most significant garment in all cultures, therefore it is a product of western culture. A dress is not the most significant delineator of masculinity, therefore it is a marker of femininity, and the forms of dresses I have identified here have not always been important, therefore it is a product of its time. So the question then, becomes, what factors of time, culture and gender have rendered the dress such a significant garment?
The title of this post “Dress Stories” and the link between dresses and narrative is taken form the book Not just any dress : narratives of memory, body, and identity edited by Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell