It’s not Just a Trend- White Dresses are Popular Right Now for a Reason

White dresses have been a typical summer outfit for a while now but haven’t been a full blown trend until this year. They’ve become a popular option to throw on for a casual outing like to the beach, but have especially become popular for fancier affairs. When going on night time excursions and dinner outings you’ll see nearly every woman within a party wearing a white dress. 

Like every other trend there is a reason behind it. Nearly all of the big fashion labels showcased a plethora of white dresses for their Spring and Summer collections. However there is still the question as to why?

A great example as to the reason comes from the brand Zimmermann, who is massively popular for Spring and Summer fashion. Back in October they debuted at Paris fashion week with their SS23 collection. They’ve had lots of eyes on them and are one of the most worn brands of the season. 

Like many others, Zimmermann showcased white dresses within their collection. The rest of the clothing however, gives a hint as to where this trend came from. The runway saw floral prints of tropical coloured flowers, as well as prints of Edwardian seed packet designs, and ruffled panels and collars. 

The most standout pieces were the series of linen dresses that had graphics of modern beach scenes recoloured to look like retro photographs. Most of its influence came from a turn of the century amusement park that was on Tamarama beach in Sydney. Overall it is a coastal inspired collection.

The coastal style has taken over the last couple of summers. In 2022 Elle and Glamour mentioned other facets to coastal fashion in their summer trends lists. Tennis dresses, linen, and pinstripe button downs were some listed. All of which are light, airy, and comfortable, but can still be dressy. They’re also typically in shades of cream and white. These qualities are similarly found in the white dresses that have become popular.

The clothing pieces mentioned also have great overlap with another trend- vintage Americana. A trend whose submergence into summer fashion can be attributed to the popularity of Lana del rey’s most recent album and its stylistic similarity to classic indie movies which have seen a rise in popularity. 

Most noticeably vintage Americana branches off from the immensely popular coquette fashion we saw during Winter. Staples of which include sheer lace tops, lace trimmed collars, and rose appliques. Any popular clothing store- Forever 21, Primark, H&M, etc- were showcasing these pieces. They rarely came in any colour besides baby pink or white.

The style is hyper feminine in a dainty way; but it also borders on melancholic. This can be attributed to the rise of dissociative feminism, hyper femininity and the appeal towards femme fatales and toxic femininity tropes. The ideology and style is also in part attributed to the Lana del Rey persona and the resurgence in popularity for indie movies like the Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinnette and American Beauty. Like the clothes, the girls wearing them romanticize themselves as dainty and frail. Not to mention sexualizing in a submissive nature.

Of course vintage Americana would become a summer trend considering its relation with the fourth of July. However, its subtly sexual and retro feminine qualities are in line with coquette fashion. The staple pieces being Gingham red and white dresses, and, once again, cotton white dresses now paired with red accessories such as cowboy boots or sunglasses.

This style seems to romanticize both the rich and the poor of America. Some lean into a trailer park or saloon goer vibe. The cowboy boots before mentioned are a product of a low income midwestern cliche. Of course cowboy boots are popular footwear for anyone, but the women and girls on social media who recreate the trend often pose in front of gas stations, diners, and old signs that are supposed to resemble those from route 66, or to tell you where to pull in for a cheap motel.

However some choose to romanticize the rich. Those who style themselves as low class Americans copy midwestern stereotypes. Those who dress like the rich copy east coast stereotypes. Which is where the most obvious overlap between vintage americana and coastal fashion can be seen. The same tennis dresses mentioned as coastal fashion, would have been worn by women for matches at the country club. The pinstripe button-downs would have been worn while lounging on your private beach or sail boat; much like in the Great Gatsby, which is where many get their inspiration from.

The overlap in vintage fashion and coastal fashion points us to where this white dress trend is going. Besides coastal and vintage Americana we have seen white dresses a part of another trend called ‘European summer.’ Essentially it’s Americans, specifically American influencers, traveling to Europe for summer vacation. The clothes they wear are significant to the experience. In part they are inspired by bohemian fashion.

Now accumulating qualities from the three- holiday, coastal, vintage, and involving topics of class- the forthcoming summer trend is mediterranean. 

The travel aspect is very similar to European summer. They are also similar for being influenced by bohemian fashion. Some of the staple pieces are paisley designs, crochet, head scarves, gold hoops, and flowing garments- which yes include long white skirts and dresses.

Like with vintage americana there is also a discussion of class. Bohemianism has gotten criticism before for being a movement in which wealthy people romanticize a low class lifestyle. The movement started with wealthy artists of the 19th century who favored nonconformity and hoped leaving their upper class lifestyles would lessen their restraints to societal expectations. 

Their early attempts at shunning hierarchical structures and materialism would be considered admirable. However their idealization of people like the Roma, commonly mistaken as gypsies, ignored the difficult reality of their living situation. Many of those people were forced into the traveling lifestyle and lacked resources. Mimicking the clothes they wore made the bohemians’ attempts seem performative. Much of bohemian styles originates from Roma style. 

The criticism of classism becomes deeper when acknowledging the fact that the style only became popular when the wealthy started wearing it. Now it is the upper class who can afford traveling abroad that are bringing it back in style and commercializing it to middle and working class Americans.

However not all of the women and girls copying these trends are doing it because they’ve subconsciously grown to like them from social media. A lot of them are getting their inspiration from classic art and literature. The white dress isn’t just coincidentally a part of some social media ‘aesthetics.’ They all have key themes (some of which overlap): art, history or iconography, and ideas of femininity.

For example the European summer and Mediterranean aesthetics are also inspired by women in classic paintings. The renaissance made its way into modern fashion a few years ago. Graphics from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel- blue sky, clouds and angels- were printed on mesh skirts, dresses and tops that were mass produced by every fast fashion brand. Ariana Grande even wore a ball gown with the designs to the 2018 Met Gala. The theme for that year was ‘Heavenly Bodies.’

Since then there has not been another trend in which the exact recreation of a piece of art was blown up and then massively produced on clothing items. People have become more individualistic. They also take inspiration from the style of art rather than just wearing the actual piece. ‘The Birth of Venus’ by Boticelli is referenced the most. Though Aphrodite/Venus is nude, people style themselves after the soft and muted colours and texture of the painting. There are also makeup tutorials on youtube recreating her soft and rosy face. Another example is with jewelry and accessories. After years of silver being on top, gold jewelry has risen again. At the same time, ‘The Kiss’ by Gustav Klimt is being printed on bookmarks, journals, and mugs. Frida Kahlo’s work has also been produced onto ‘gift shop’ items, and in several of her paintings she is depicted with gold jewelry. A lot of the white flowing garments are also inspired by classic art pieces such as ‘L’aurore’ by William- Adolphe Bouguereau or ‘Miranda ‘by Thomas Francis Dicksee. 

Fashion referencing classic art coincides with its influence in other forms of pop culture. ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation ‘ by Ottessa Moshfegh is a modern piece of literature that uses the painting of an Edwardian woman as its cover design. In the book the main character studied art history and for a portion of the story works at an art gallery. It’s one of the most popular books amongst the women who adhere to these styles.

It’s not so surprising people want to reference art with their fashion considering the pieces themselves are just depicting women stylised to what the artist likes. Many women acknowledge this however. In ‘My year of Rest and Relaxation’ while the main character gradually tries to use her sleeping pills to subdue her for longer periods of time she makes an agreement with an artist. In exchange for bringing her necessities he is allowed to use her for any art project he wants while she is unconscious.

During the Renaissance Men were painting women in interpretation of their philosophy inspired by the Greeks. They retaliated against the sexual oppression enforced by religion using the sexualisation of female bodies. In Bettany Hughes book ‘Venus & Aphrodite: History of a Goddess’ Hughes describes Venus, the deity of love and sex, at this time “being paraded as an excuse for contemplation, and sometimes titillation.” Now women are still taking core ideas from these classic art movements, but with their control. In ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ the main character is an anti-hero who critics say “resists every stereotype of the female nurturer.” 

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