Cutbacks seem to have become endemic in all walks of life over the past few years. More recently, however, there has been one very notable cutback in fashion – that of the shoulder strap.
Much in evidence along the boulevards of Cannes earlier this month, the décolletage-skimming style has risen from the fashion ashes. Sofia Vergara and Lupita Nyong’o both stepped out strap-free for the White House Correspondents’ dinner, while Kate Upton wore an embroidered strapless dress by Dolce & Gabbana at The Other Woman premiere in Los Angeles last month. “She was utterly sexy,” the Italian designers said. “A strapless dress emphasises a woman’s shape at her best.”
From Mary Katrantzou’s printed ruffles and Stella McCartney’s streamline silks to Anthony Vaccarello’s army of geometrically-cut strapless siren dresses, a flash of collarbone is spring’s latest kick. “It’s a very contemporary way to approach evening wear,” says Vaccarello. “The strapless dress gives more freedom to a woman when she moves. It highlights her neck and underlines what I find most beautiful in a woman’s body: her clavicles and shoulders.”
The strapless dress has been in and out of favour. In the 1980s and 1990s it was teamed with throbbing chandelier earrings by the likes of Claudia Schiffer, Carla Bruni and Cindy Crawford, before a succession of corseted velvet minidresses, unrelenting bustiers and a mass of stretch-fabric tubing resulted in it slowly falling out of favour. The style became reserved for high school proms, edgy girl bands and fishtail red carpet dresses, with Sex in the City’s Carrie Bradshaw its most prolific aficionado.
“The dress seems to have grown up a bit,” says Georgina Chapman, co-founder of red-carpet favourite Marchesa. “It tends to be a very flattering style and we see it now being styled in clever ways, like layered under a luxe cardigan.” Consider Saint Laurent’s strapless tiered dresses under leather jackets and boyfriend blazers, or Prabal Gurung’s Marilyn Monroe-inspired collection with exposed corsetry and sweetheart necklines, revved up in 21st-century high-tech fabrics.
Then there are Lanvin’s fairytale frothing ruffles alongside high-shine disco lamé. Strapless jumpsuits are also evident in current collections, including a fire hydrant red version at Emelia Wickstead (£1,350), Erdem’s super-sensuous embroidered silk organza creation (£2,240) and Mulberry’s take on cotton (£1,200).
“A new take on sensuality has been a major influence,” says Ben Matthews, buying manager for Net-a-Porter. “Designers have softened existing shapes. The whole feel of the trend is much more feminine and elegant now, which has made it easier to wear.” See, for example, Calvin Klein’s airy strapless silhouettes, or Adam Lippes’ pleated chiffon dress.
For her latest Topshop collaboration, Kate Moss recently resurrected the black, feathered strapless dress she wore at Cannes in 1998 with Johnny Depp. Early 1990s grunge and 2014 minimalism aside, in many ways, the strapless dress has gone back to its roots. There is a retro nod to the New Look glamour of the 1940s, echoing Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946) or Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (1955). Why not make like Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951) in an encrusted bustier à la Oscar de la Renta, or take inspiration from the famous photograph of the model Dovima poised in strapless couture between two elephants by Richard Avedon in 1955.
However, there are still many logistical woes against the style, primarily the underwear dilemma: to bra or not to bra. It is also completely unforgiving on the upper arm, and it can be totally inappropriate. “Wearing a strapless dress is not easy for a woman,” say Dolce & Gabbana. “She needs to feel very confident with her body.” Nonetheless, it is far kinder than other 1990s throwbacks such as the crop top or the spaghetti strap. There are also far better options today for strap-free underwear, from Agent Provocateur’s scintillating tulle corsetry to La Perla’s multi-way series.
Finally, one more word of advice from Vaccarello: “Wear it in a minimal way: no jewels, no flashy accessories,” he instructs. “Avoid the ‘cute’ effect: I don’t like too girlie, or too smart . . . a woman needs to feel natural in that kind of dress.”
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