We are coming into prom season and given that many high school students did not get to experience a prom (or graduation, school sports, or a normal school year of milestones and memories) in 2020, this year is especially important for teens. Tuxedo fashions haven’t changed that much; the ruffled shirts, velvet trim, and cummerbunds are no longer the chic look, but the basic satin trimmed trousers, dress jacket, and pleated shirt secured by a bow tie or traditional cravat are classics that have stood the test of time. Dresses, however? That’s a whole other story.
The Birth of the Granny Dress
Legendary designer Jessica McClintock, known for the “granny style” Bohemian party dresses of the 60s and 70s, as well as jewel-toned taffeta and satin creations in the 80s and 90s, died recently, and her creations are now becoming collectible. Part of the appeal is that the “prairie dress” trend was already a thing. It began on Instagram in mid-2018, with the hashtag #PrairieCore and began showing up on fashion runways everywhere. While Target was having a moment in the fashion space in the fall of 2020 with their prairie look, inspiring social media memes, and jokes, the look of calico, lace, and ruffles is back on the scene. Women are scouring thrift stores and online sites to score some of the original prairie looks, and dresses designed by McClintock, for the company Gunne Sax, are fetching far more on the secondary market than they went for originally. McClintock invested $5,000 of her own money in the San Francisco fashion company in 1969, and eventually went on to own it.
Her dresses were purposely priced affordably since her core consumers were the hippies and flower children of the time. Not everyone who wore the dresses was a Haight-Ashbury denizen, though. In 1975, former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton wore a Jessica McClintock dress when she married Bill Clinton. She has said she picked it out the night before the wedding, in the department store Dillard’s and paid $53 for it.
A dress that was originally about $60, is now going for nearly three times that much on eBay.
Getting a Look Under the Hood
The social media memes of 2020 show the prairie dress trend as a bit of a joke, but it’s quite serious among vintage collectors. While the dresses are front and center now, enthusiasts of the style have been around for years, and they know all the details of every dress. Many thrifters looking for the dresses that five years ago would be on a clearance rack are now finding that prices have gone through the roof along with demand. One style, in particular, that is something of a Holy Grail among fans is a Gunne Sax dress with a hood. Some of the styles added a hood to the dress to evoke a kind of Renaissance Faire look, and the hooded dresses are tough to come by.
In April of 2020, this hard-to-find hooded Gunne Sax above sold for $185. Just six months later, the same style shown below sold for an incredible $950.
From Prairie to Prom Queen
It’s difficult to say how dresses that were partially inspired by the television show “Little House on the Prairie” became the height of romantic, formal fashion, but that’s exactly what happened. While the dresses worn on the show were meant to represent the authentic utilitarian look of what the average pioneer woman would wear, Gunne Sax dresses took it up a notch, with lots of lace, ribbons, and ruffles. While the 1970s were all about empowering women in the business world, with pantsuits becoming almost a de facto uniform, formal occasions were still about soft, feminine looks.
Polyester pantsuits were popular with working women at the time, so when it was time to party, the trends turned to more romantic looks.
With the ERA movement, feminism became about choice and women could choose to look business-like by day, while still enjoying formal wear that was dressier, with floral prints and satin trim. The dresses are also much more comfortable than the stiffer taffeta, tulle, and heavily-boned corseted dresses of the 1950s and early 1960s. Many of them could be worn without nylon hose or foundation garments and were much more comfortable for dancing. Women didn’t want to have to suck in all their bits and bumps and endure an evening of itchy crinoline, so the Gunne Sax dresses represented a freer look.
Boning, layers of tulle, and a crinoline made a 1950s formal dress much more complicated than the freer styles of Jessica McClintock’s line.
The Gunne Sax Gang
There are multiple online web pages and social media accounts dedicated to the Gunne Sax trend, and these sites show how demand for the dresses goes further back than just the last few months. The Instagram account Gunne Sax Addicts has nearly 3,000 followers and includes hundreds of photos and videos of the styles. Because the pandemic has seriously limited thrift shopping, many collectors of the vintage dresses have turned to online auctions as well, and there are tons of videos online about Gunne Sax collectors, where to find the dresses, and of course, a look inside some pretty cool closets. Hello Vintage has an annual Gunne Sax Party and Lookbook that was virtual this year and showed the collections of several fans. The trend shows no signs of slowing down, so hit up those closets and storage areas. You might just have a vintage find sitting in a bag waiting to have a second chance.
Brenda Kelley Kim lives in the Boston area. She is the author of Sink or Swim: Tales From the Deep End of Everywhere and writes a weekly syndicated column for Gannett News/Wicked Local. When not writing or walking her snorty pug Penny, she enjoys yard sales, flea markets, and badminton.
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