Over the years, few designers have been able to construct clothing that could stand the test of time. Bell bottoms came and went (and it looks like they could be back again). Knee-length skirts grew shorter and shorter into miniskirts. However, Diane von Fürstenberg managed to create a garment that has established its place in every woman’s closet since the 1970s: the wrap dress.
What is perhaps as fascinating as the story of the wrap dress is Fürstenberg’s story. She was born to Leon Halfin, a Russian electronics distributor and Lily Nahmias, a Greek survivor of the Holocaust.
Growing up, Fürstenberg (née Diane Simon Michelle Halfin) attended Pensionnat Cuche, a boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1961, Fürstenberg began traveling to different schools. She studied at Stroud Court in England. In 1965, she studied briefly in Madrid before enrolling at the University of Geneva in Geneva, Switzerland where her mother lives.
In 1965, Fürstenberg met Eduard Egon von und zu Fürstenberg, the prince of Fürstenberg, with whom the designer would marry in 1969 and give birth to their two children (Alexandre von Fürstenberg and Tatiana von Fürstenberg). Which means that her title was Princess Diane of Fürstenberg – every little girl’s dream. However, a title wouldn’t change Fürstenberg’s drive and determination.
As soon as she decided to marry, Fürstenberg knew that she wanted to have her own career. She didn’t want to be the storybook girl waiting for her prince to come. “I wanted to be someone of my own, and not just a plain little girl who got married beyond her desserts,” she said in the New York Times.
In 1969, Fürstenberg apprenticed with the Italian textile manufacturer Angelo Ferretti, where her designing experience began. At Ferretti’s, Fürstenberg started creating dresses. He had great fabrics that Fürstenberg could use, and she felt that there needed to be some dresses.
Fürstenberg was right. In the 70s, she created the wrap dress: a dress to wrap around the body and tie at the waist. She created the dress with jersey knit combined with the colors and patterns that were common of the 70s to make a piece of clothing that millions of women bought and loved. They loved it so much that the Metropolitan Museum of Art now features one of Fürstenberg’s 1975-1976 wrap dresses in The Costume Institute.
What made the dress so popular? Women’s rights movements and feminism were booming in the 1960s. Women wanted to have the same rights as men and, possibly more importantly, wanted the same jobs and pay as men that were previously not guaranteed. Fürstenberg’s dress gave working women something to wear as women – women who wanted to work like men, but continue to look like a woman. The jersey knit is comfortable to wear all day. It looks appropriate for the work place or casual wear, especially with the right accessories. As Fürstenberg said to Oprah Winfrey, the woman she designs for is “independent, beautiful, in charge of her life,” and that woman is still part of Fürstenberg.
“Oh, I’m too old to be that woman—but she is still inside me. The great thing I’ve discovered about aging is that it means you have a past. If you’ve lived your past well and are happy with it, you have lived fully,” she said with Oprah.
The wrap dress wasn’t just a dress. It was a product of a time where women were working and fighting to be treated fairly. The reason why the wrap dress translates to the working woman is because it was created by the working woman. Diane von Fürstenberg is the dress that she created. Beyond the function-ability of the wrap dress, it became an example of what could be accomplished with a woman in charge. It’s not about what you wear, but how you wear it. This dress was made to be worn with power and femininity – one doesn’t have to be sacrificed for the other.