In 1974, 26-year-old Diane von Furstenberg created a fashion phenomenon when she introduced her wrap dress to the world. Forty years later, a new exhibit at the Wilshire May Company Building in Los Angeles is honoring the piece that solidified her status as not only a style icon, but also a female pioneer.
“I was very surprised by [its success],” the designer told The Daily Beast (disclosure: von Furstenberg is married to Barry Diller, who is Chairman and Senior Executive of IAC, the parent company of The Daily Beast). “It happened so quickly. I really just wanted to create a simple dress that I would wear, but it turned out to be exactly what women wanted at the time. When they put me on the cover of Newsweek, I knew it was a success. It allowed me to live the American dream.”
Von Furstenberg’s 1976 Newsweek cover established her as the biggest name in fashion since Coco Chanel. “Feel like a woman, wear a dress!” became her catchphrase, and the wrap dress became her signature look.
Four decades later, the designer stands among 200 mannequins clad in different varieties of her most recognizable piece — tan and brown leopard, black and white geometrics, yellow and white ginkgo, among many others — as part of the retrospective, Diane von Furstenberg: Journey of the Dress, honoring the wrap dress's legacy. Photos of the designer’s personal and professional lives are scattered among the jersey frocks, with images of von Furstenberg’s first fashion campaign mixed in with those of her travels and of celebrities (and friends) wearing her historic pieces.
“The Journey of the Dress exhibition is all about celebrating the wrap dress,” she said. “It's the 40th anniversary, so I really wanted to honor the dress that has had such an impact on my life and the lives of many women around the world. I wanted to evoke the spirit of the wrap dress and to show how it has taken on a life of its own through all of the women who have worn it.”
The wrap dress has earned its legacy in both fashion and pop culture. Jerry Hall was first seen wearing the piece on the runway at age 17. Cybill Shepherd famously wore one in Taxi Driver. Lauren Graham sported the style in Because I Said So. Even Amy Adams donned a vintage version of the frock in American Hustle.
And off camera, the wrap dress has held personal significance for some of Hollywood’s biggest names.
“I remember the first runway show my sister and I went to in New York was her [von Furstenberg] show,” Paris Hilton told ELLE magazine on the exhibit’s opening night. “We had just both moved to New York. I was 16 and my sister was 13 and we came dressed as twins in matching DVF wrap-dresses. It was so exciting to be at our first runway show. We’ve known Diane since we were little girls and I’ve always admired her and her style.”
“I remember the first time I ever wore a wrap dress: it was on Sex and the City, and [series costume designer] Pat Field told me she had found a vintage DVF wrap from the 1970s, and I just thought, ‘Wow,’” Sarah Jessica Parker told The Financial Times. "I think for Carrie, it would have represented a time in New York that meant something to her — a time of women’s liberation and all that — but for me, wearing it felt like every paragraph you have ever read from DVF about the idea of that dress: it hides every secret you want to hide. I just felt flawless.”
And who wouldn’t feel amazing in the dress that von Furstenberg herself describes as something “that will always make women feel like the best versions of themselves?” It’s a symbol of power and femininity. It’s a signifier of freedom and comfort. It's now a must-have wardrobe staple, similar to that of the t-shirt or a pair of jeans. In other words: it’s so much more than a dress.
“The wrap dress is really what helped me to become the woman I wanted to be,” von Furstenberg said. “It paid for all of my bills; it gave me my independence; it paid for my children's education. I owe so much to the wrap dress, and now it allows me to encourage other women to be that woman they want to be. It is a very powerful thing.”
Diane von Furstenberg: Journey of a Dress is on display through April 1 at the Wilshire May Company Building in Los Angeles, CA.