Yesterday the trailer for Greta Gerwig’s highly anticipated adaptation of Little Women dropped, starring some of the biggest young stars like Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, and Timothée Chalamet. While we logically know the new version is supposed to depict a Civil War-era America (it’s an update to the 1994 adaptation, which starred folks like Winona Ryder and Christian Bale), the clothes looked suspiciously similar to how we’ve already been dressing in 2019. For the last year, dressing in early-19th-century dresses, commonly referred to as “prairie dresses,”—aka like Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—has been one of the biggest fashion trends.
The prairie girl dress—a shapeless, high-necked, dress with a ruffled collar and puffed shoulder—is as divisive as it is prevalent. Its main champions are Batsheva Hay (the choice of cool girls citywide) and Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, who takes a more regal-England spin to the trend. In February, The Cut published an article titled “The Pleasure of Sitting out the Prairie Dress Trend,” where the outlet stated: “I would summarize my internal definition of sartorial comfort as: not feeling like I’m wearing a costume. The Batsheva ethos, meanwhile, is something like: wearing a costume all the time.” The essay goes on to surmise the role nostalgia has in prairie girl dressing, the shapeless dresses a hearkening back to childhood smocks. Many agreed with this stance on Twitter, pushing back on the prairie girl rhetoric that was sweeping the nation.
Others remained enthusiastic supporters of the Little House on the Prairie-chic look; Celebrities that have been spotted sporting the trend include Beanie Feldstein, Chloe Sevigny, Gillian Jabobs, Rowan Blanchard, Reese Blutstein, and Elle Fanning. Aurora James of Brother Vellies wore a Batsheva dress to the Met Gala last year. In our minds, Batsheva’s coolest dresses take cues from the modest Laura Ashley dresses of yesteryear but give them an edgier spin with sheer, metallic, and heavily patterned prints. The old-timey silhouette of the Batsheva dress is at odds with these chaotic-fabrics, creating a delightful dissonance that feels uncanny.
While the Batsheva dress remains modest (though sometimes in minidress form), its modesty is what makes it a subversive choice; the popularity of the dress rejects style trends dictating that to be sexy means to wear less. By redefining what it means to be cool, the prairie dress makes us question all our other wardrobe pieces.
In May 2018, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, editor in chief of Teen Vogue, wrote an essay in support of the prairie girl dress, also for The Cut. “Prairie dresses are essentially a full look in one piece; once you put one on, it speaks for itself. At this point, I’ve come to prefer them to flowy, unstructured, bohemian dresses because they have so much personality,” Lindsay writes. “It reminds me of getting dressed in simpler times when all I wanted was to wear something pretty,” she continues.
Nostalgia certainly plays a role in the trend, but we can also understand it directly in relation to the Little Women frenzy. The prairie way of dressing can be explained as nostalgia for a long-ago time in America when people took part in activities like churning butter and reading by the fire. In other words: nostalgia for a simpler time. I’m not convinced this is the only reason why the style is so popular. Instead, I think the nostalgia could be for a time not quite so far away: reading Little Women in our childhood. Many of us read the classic 1868 book by Louisa May Alcott in grade school, along with other prairie classics such as Anne of Green Gables in addition to the Sarah, Plain and Tall books.
As we devoured these narratives, it was only natural that we pictured ourselves in the position of the young, strong-headed protagonists from an era long ago. With Little Women, we tried to answer the question: Am I Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy? Each sister has distinct personality traits that people see or want to see in themselves. We wanted to be Jo, the fearless writer who set out on her own path. But in reality we’re all most likely a mix of the strong-headed, independent, sometimes reckless sisters. By dressing like these characters, we’re able to fulfill an aspect of our childhood imaginations and step into our made-up identities as March sisters. If that has an element of dressing up in a costume like a Batsheva dress, then so be it.
The film’s release at the end of this year will give you plenty of time to re-read the book and consider what sister you most associate with, as well as go out and buy a prairie dress. Since the style is rooted in a style from days gone by, scour your local flea market for the perfect prairie girl dress, then hem it into a minidress, and add some metallic flair to bring it into this century. Think of it as something a 21st-century Jo would wear.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue