Posts made in May 6th, 2011

Fifty Dresses That Changed The World

Posted by on May 6, 2011 in Books & Film, Fashion & Beauty | 3 comments

Review of Fifty Dresses That Changed the World, The Design Museum, Conran Octopus Ltd

Can a dress really change the world? Maybe not exactly, but one can definitely change the world of fashion, reflect and influence the social and cultural change, and communicate these changes in an often subtle but pervasive way.

The perfect and most recent example is Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. Of course it is still too early to measure the effects it is yet to have, but the amount of press coverage and the veritable ‘Kate Fever’ it has caused, and the numerous copies currently being made, are testament to the stir it has caused. And yet it it hardly a surprise – a beautiful, but safe and conservative dress that speaks volumes about the current state of the monarchy and of our times.



Kate’s dress, by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, pays tribute to the Arts and Crafts movement by its appliqué, painstakingly handmade by the Royal School of Needlework, based at Hampton Court Palace. It epitomises timeless British craftsmanship and reflects the current ‘Craft Revival’ taking place in Britain. Drawing on heritage, but simplifying and modernising it, Kate’s dress speaks of a new type of princess for the modern times, and eclipses memories of Diana and her dress completely (well, almost!).

Diana’s dress is of course included in Fifty Dresses That Changed The World, one of the Design Museum series, which focuses on the iconic pieces that have had substantial impact on the design world in the past century.



The introduction, by Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, quotes Meryl Streep’s character in the 2006 film, The Devil Wears Prada, where she outlines the rippling sequence and chain of events that connects a couture collection with the colour of a cheap chain-store jumper. Less powerful in its condensed from here, the reference is nevertheless the perfect introduction to the book, which tells the story of the century’s fashion through a focus on fifty individual dresses.

According to Sudjic, ‘it is a story that embraces social and economic change and radically fluctating positions on gender and sexuality’. It is fascinating to follow the changes, from Mario Fortuny’s Delphos Pleated Dress (1915), to the radically different Hussein Chalayan’s LED dress (2007).

Despite the changes in style, some themes reoccur throughout the century, such as a return to, or reinterpretation of, classicism, seen for example in Madeline Vionnet’s Goddess Dress (1931), or Clavin Klein’s Shift Dress (1990).

There are some surprises and omissions along the way – no 1970s Vivienne Westwood bondage – but on the whole a very carefully thought out selection of iconic dresses, whose influence on the world of fashion can not be denied. Diana von Fürstenberg’s Wrap Dress (1973) is still a staple of most women’s wardrobes (in its numerous imitations of course), as is the more recent Roland Mouret’s Galaxy Dress (2005).



Like Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, Fifty Dresses That Changed the World packs a lot of information into a small space, and is a definite must for any one interested in fashion and its influence.

Fifty Dresses That Changed the World is published by Octopus Books (who I thank for sending me a review copy), RRP £12.99. Other titles in the series include Fifty Cars That Changed the World, Fifty Chairs That Changed the World, and Fifty Shoes That Changed the World (the latter being top of my wish list!)

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