London’s social season is in full swing and taking centre stage is the frock of the moment – the tea dress. This full-skirted, usually floral, always feminine concoction has become the summer alternative to spring’s skirt suit.
Tea dresses may historically conjure images of a 1940s housewife, with set hair and kitten-heel mules behind a white picket fence, but today’s versions are the opposite of vintage. Take, for example, Bottega Veneta’s floral version spotted with studs; Valentino’s snakeskin and lace combos; or Loewe’s tough leather looks. Then there is Etro’s blue style with sexy cut-out back (£810) and Balenciaga’s understated white poplin mini (£865). Together they add up to the soft wardrobe of a strong woman, which perhaps explains why power figures such as First Lady Michelle Obama and US Vogue editor Anna Wintour are both fans.
Kerry Taylor, fashion auctioneer, says: “I wear tea dresses all the time because I love the retro look. The dresses are different to what is on the high street. They are formal, well-structured, well-tailored but casual, and easy to wear.”
Taylor is obviously not alone in her love of this most versatile of styles; Giambattista Valli’s emerald green floral print tea dress sold out within a week at online retailer mytheresa.com, while British design duo Clements Ribeiro’s washed silk floral dress with unusual dip dye hem is the brand’s fastest selling item.
“The way the dress is styled can change the look completely,” says Stuart Vevers, Loewe’s creative director. “Whether it is buttoned-up and polished, or left open for a more sensual feeling, it is highly versatile.”
Sarah Armitage, a celebrity booker, says: “My tea dress is the one item I don’t have to worry about. I just throw it on with a pair of cute plimsolls for friends’ parties, or heels for Ascot, and I’m done. I also wear tea dresses for work. They are smart but fun, so I don’t lose my personality. I simply pop on a tailored jacket for a more corporate feel.”
Indeed, it’s this ease of wear that designer Tory Burch believes is responsible for the renaissance of the tea dress. Burch, whose tea dresses range from structured gingham looks to sheer embroidered organza, says women are choosing tea dresses as a sartorial solution in their busy lives – between juggling careers and family, they need stylish pieces that require little effort. Burch should know, as she is balancing a global business valued at $2bn and raising three sons – all the while most often found in her own favourite leather-belted, red, black and white graphic tea dress.
It’s ironic, of course, that such a solution should arise from a garment popularised when many women were chained to the kitchen sink, but then that’s classic fashion sleight of hand: transforming one generation’s symbol of servitude into a vehicle for another’s liberation.
Figures of fun: Smooth crinoline
Along with tea dresses, that other paradigm of femininity is crinoline. It has waltzed back into the spotlight thanks to such disparate fashion influences as Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary, with her frothy layered dresses, and Beyoncé, wearing a crinoline-filled skirt by DSquared2 on her “Mrs Carter” tour.
Crinolines are also celebrated in RetroSpective, a new show in New York that examines the influence of fashion history on contemporary designers. Jennifer Farley, the show’s curator, says: “The hourglass shape is the archetype of femininity and the female body.”
But don’t take her word for it; look at the current collections. Cages appeared over sheer skirts at Alexander McQueen, Dolce & Gabbana presented wicker versions, and Comme des Garçons created crinoline shapes from crumpled layers. Dior’s Raf Simons sculpted a blue metallic silk floral skirt (£6,700). Then there is Lanvin’s dramatic black frosted mini-crini (£4,770); Rodarte’s felt and leather dress with silk organza crinoline skirt (£8,365); Oscar de la Renta’s tweed embellished tiered dress (£1,960); and Simone Rocha’s broderie anglaise skirt with sheer plastic overlay (£830).
Vivienne Westwood has been synonymous with the look since she revolutionised it with the mini-crini in 1985, on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s forthcoming 1980s fashion exhibition, and has included a metallic check gown in her current “Gold” collection. She says: “There was never a fashion invented that was sexier. These dresses give you a balletic posture and are very elegant.”
While previous reincarnations have been literal, today’s crinolines are more subtle. Designers have been experimenting with proportions, such as the triangular shapes at the modern-day House of Worth, creators of the 19th-century crinoline, and new fabrics, such as neoprene which can be moulded into shape. American designer Thom Browne, who set multicoloured striped crinoline cages over a plaid jacket and trouser combo, says: “It was not so much about doing a crinoline but about turning it inside out to make it more humorous, surreal and entertaining.”
‘RetroSpective’ is at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York until November 16, www.fitnyc.edu