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Here By Design


Evening dress, December 1815., Digital ID 1111692, New York Public LibraryBecause Everything Old Is New Again.

One thing about the humanities is the enduring value of retrospective publications. When looked at, they reveal amazing patterns recurring regularly. fashion and design are so often equated with being cutting edge, innovative, and daring, that we forget that the “newest look”appeared sometime in the past. Many designers cultivate selective amnesia about the origins of a look they are producing, or fall back on calling it “retro.

Cultivating a historical perspective about design can help counter the anger or frustration we feel about good designs gone wrong. A design can start out with a particular meaning that becomes altered or readapted at a later point, so that its original context is lost. A good example is the empire waist gown. While this mode works best today as a floor-length evening or wedding gown, it has in recent decades been readapted to assume the “baby doll dress” form.

The original empire waist gown was itself derived from the Greek chiton worn by women in antiquity. This mode was reinvented during the last decade of the 18th century by the women of Revolutionary France, and made popular by the Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy of her time, Josephine Bonaparte. European women took up the craze for the empire wasit gown eagerly, despite the fact that its proportions were often unflattering to certain body types. Today, the “baby doll” dress negates the elegant fashion aesthetic that Josephine and her fellow Merveilleuses (mainly high-class courtesans) promoted. And there was certainly nothing very juvenile or chaste about the social context in which the empire waist gown was created. When and how did the meaning behind this design change?


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