The Revenge of the Cocktail Dress

·5 min read
Photo credit: Courtesy of Eckhaus Latta, Victor Glemaud, and Khaite.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Eckhaus Latta, Victor Glemaud, and Khaite.

For years now we’ve been swimming in our swishy Old Celine-inspired trousers and our oversized blazers over t-shirts and crop tops, and wearing sneakers and flats with even our dressiest clothes.

But this season, an old school player seems to be taking its revenge: the cocktail dress.

The cocktail dress is not the driver of New York Fashion Week. But designers as varied as the bohemian Ulla Johnson and the crisp sportswear impresario Victor Glemaud are ushering in its return. Even the gentle weirdos at Eckhaus Latta, Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, are turning out sick little numbers.

At Johnson’s show, there was a decidedly upscale feeling. Her lovely printed dresses, ruffled with a smart panache, usually feel best for a long afternoon catching up with a friend in which one glass of wine turns into three. And if you stroll by school drop-off in neighborhoods peopled with stylish supermoms like Boerum Hill, Tribeca, or the Upper East Side, an Ulla dress is practically a uniform. Maybe Johnson is attempting to scoop up some red carpet credits—Ella Emhoff and Katie Holmes were dressed by her and seated in the front row—but several of the standout looks were fancy clothes that looked destined for life outside the press junket, like a slightly exaggerated version of her signature big sleeves and layered skirt, done in shibori fabrics in blue or pale pink and green.

At Glemaud, the dresses were as simple as the best versions of the libation from which the cocktail dress borrows its name. Glemaud smartly didn’t overcrowd his collection; in just 30 looks, the designer, clearly working in sunny deference to Stephen Burrows, gave us the best strapless slipdress of the season in the most perfect pale pink, a cheery-sexy white minidress with a cap sleeve, and a sly exclamation point of a little black dress with one pointed strappy shoulder.

Other great cocktail dresses: Khaite’s ribbed mockneck with a slithery fringe skirt gathered in graduated bands, and an “I-don’t-care-I’m-so-glamorous” strapless bubble column. But the dress I’ve been thinking about for days is one worn by the artist Susan Cianciolo at Eckhaus Latta, which had a chubby Issey Miyake-ish form in a muddy wine color with a rugged scrap of silver as the breastplate, showing just the slightest bit of belly. You can see here what makes a good cocktail dress great. It’s sexy. And it’s slightly funky but it’s not riddled with cut-outs and mesh and other pointless ideas. It feels like a party to the woman wearing it.

This is not an elevation or an evolution of the riotous and expressive mode in which young people are now dressing, a phenomenon I deemed Depop Couture during the Spring 2022 shows a year ago. That was on full display at a show like Area, with bold-faced guests and second-row attendees alike in glittering gowns and nightlife ensembles, occasion and time of day be damned. Nightclub clothes are just as good for flexing in the middle of the day as the finest Carolina Herrera shirtdress, the thinking goes. But that way of wearing clothes is more an emotional reaction to a world of pain and mania. Young people feel like the world is denying them the kind of stability that is the foundation of basic human happiness; why not claim joy, and even a sense of control, through your clothes? Twenty-somethings seem to feel about the world the way Rihanna famously put it when she won the CFDA’s Fashion Icon Award in 2014: life may be unfriendly or unwelcome or challenging, “but [they] cannot beat my outfit.”

But these dresses seem (to me, anyway) to be more about elegance. About the pleasures of adulthood, of being a woman and giving yourself a bit of the dignity that our political landscape has taken away. These are simple, discerning dresses. (This New York Fashion Week has had a particular feeling of adult opulence, and not just because I ate a helping of caviar at a Prada dinner on Monday night that was so heaping it made me feel like Sylvia Plath!)

I think that many New York designers are sensing a craving for sophistication among their customers. Again, a handful of great dresses may not define the mood of a collection or a season, but that almost makes them more important, because it’s an acknowledgement of a commercial desire for a garment their customers seem to be looking for, and of a spiritual need for refinement. These dresses speak to a woman who’s older with more money to spend; a woman who’s interested in a sense of, let’s say, sartorial propriety.

That’s not to say comfort is out the window. I saw a staffer at the Puppets and Puppets show who was dressed exactly as I see a lot of cool, sophisticated women dressing now. She looked thirty-something, and had on a very preppy slightly undersized Puppets crewneck sweater with a pair of satin leopard-print boardshorts trimmed with black lace, and very tasteful, Princess Diana-worthy almond-toe ballet flats. Very pulled together in this offbeat way, and a bit boyish. But you could see her switching out the flats for a mean little Saint Laurent slingback heel and a knotted metallic silver and gold Eckhaus dress and just killing it.

You Might Also Like