Tuesday, April 22, 2008
I am mad about the shift dress! Its so easily chic and effortlessly elegant. Now, when I say shift, I mean a true shift in the traditional sense. I think of the 60's shift that skims the body with maybe an inch and a quarter wearing ease that allows the dress to hover lightly over the bust and hips. It doesn't swallow the body the way a chemise does, nor confines the way a sheath does. All these dresses are wonderful and have their place consistently in the chic woman's wardrobe, but there's just something so alluring in its simplicity.
The best shifts have no or very little applied details or construction tricks. Dartless or just French darts; collarless with a bateau or jewel neck; sleeveless or cap-sleeved. The best shift has no waist- not empire (like the baby doll) or dropped (like th flapper). The shift allows for the beauty of the fabric to speak and receives its casualness or formality from the fabrics natural body. A shift in linen or silk crepe is perfectly pulled together, while a shift in moire' or faille or matelasse is the height of classic elegance.
One of my all-time favorite sketches. A shift in silk zagar, a stiff sheer wiry fabric created by Abraham of Zurich textile manufacturer for Balenciaga.
The shift is a master of versatility. You can accessorize it endlessly. A day shift with a matching a-line stroller is sublime. An evening shift with a stole of ermine and sable is rafine'. For an instantly more fitted look, you can throw on a wide belt , without gathering too much fabric at the waist, turning it into a instant sheath. Or wear it with a whip thin belt , worn loose between the natural waist and high hip for the look of a 50's shirtwaist. Don't even get me started on the plethora of shoe styles to be worn! Kitten heels, D'Orsay pumps, Stiletto Mary Janes or knee-high boots. And the shift is the perfect backdrop to show off interesting jewels because it doesn't compete for attention. You can wear a single strand of emerald green South Sea Tahitian pearls or ropes and ropes of diamonds like the rapper Nelly! The possibilities are absolutely endless.
"Alex" shift dress from Charles Lord's "Principessa" collection
My personal recommendations and observations:
The shift looks great when doing the Twist! Or while wearing a bouffant coif!
Wear a white shift with a half-dozen small rhinestone brooches of varying color or in brown flannel tweed with a massive 60 carat citrine deco clip brooch.
Who wore them best:
So hard to say. The shift is hard not to look good in. But I nominate Babe Paley as the Queen of the Shift. She wore them often and she is simply flawless, so... A very very close second would be Jackie Kennedy. If it were a contest of frequency or quantity, I think Jackie would win. But for me, if theres ever a toss-up between Jackie and Babe, Babe always wins. I am biased...as biased a Vionnet gown!
Babe Paley, with husband CBS founder Bill Paley, after lunching at renowned society restaurant La Cote Basque. Truly the lady who lunches in the beautiful polka dot shift with asymmetrical neckline
The most iconic shift:
YSL's Mondrian. Hands down. Some may argue that Givenchy's little black dress for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's is more famous, but I question the purity of that shift. It had a self-belt and fringed hem. It may have even had a waist seam, but I'm not sure. In any case, it may be more famous, but for the purposes of purity of line and hidden elemental structure, its gotta be the Mondrian shift by St. Laurent. In Givenchy's defense, he did make the meanest shifts of all! Maybe even better than King Balenciaga.
Isabel Eberstadt in YSL Mondrian Shift, 1965 (Isabel always looked great in shifts. I have another photo of her in the book Fashionable Savages by John Fairchild looking ultimately chic in a black shift, gloves, and a brooch!)
What would Diana Vreeland do?
She would tell you to have one made in 8-ply cashmere and lined in mink sheared as thin as moleskin to wear without a coat in St. Moritz. You'll be as warm as all the other ladies, but free of the worry of keeping a mantle.
Marella Agnelli in Courreges shift, 1967