Return of the Grown-Up Black Dress
If there is a woman over 40 who mourns the fact that the baby-doll dress is over, I don’t know her. It was arguably the dumbest fashion trend for anyone our age. Empire waist, puffy sleeves, and excessive yards of billowing fabric placed directly at our midsections — too much volume! Good riddance to a style that made everyone look pregnant, no matter what her age.
Now that we’re about to start shopping for perfect dresses to make the rounds of holiday parties, I’m here to tell you that it won’t be such a challenge. In stores you’ll now meet up with sexy little black dresses that show off your shape: You’ll actually want to hand over your credit card. The silhouette of the moment is still swingy, trapeze-style, and voluminous rather than skintight and straight, but the latest crop of dressy dresses exercises more volume control than the baby-doll ever did.
What happened this season? It’s as if the MORE crowd had sent an e-mail to the Council of Fashion Designers about dialing down the volume a bit so that women over 40 would be excited about shopping again. It must have read something like the following:
"Dear Donna, Vera, Michael, Isaac, et al.: There are 37 million women over 40 with money to burn, and frankly, there hasn’t been much to burn it on lately. So if you want us to buy something new for the party season, you need to create festive frocks that celebrate, rather than disguise, our assets.
"Volume is the enemy of the grown woman. It’s like a goopy, calorie-laden dessert: head to toe, it’s just too fattening. If you’re creating a dress that flares out to a swingy, full skirt, make sure the bodice is tight and fits close to the body.
"If you’re designing a tunic, make it short to show off legs, but not so short that we also see the upper thighs.
"If you’re making a trapeze-style dress, reduce the volume across the tummy so it looks cool and mod, not hot-mama maternity.
"If you’re doing a shirtdress with a big skirt, cinch it tight at the waist so we can show the world we have one.
"Take those little poufy capped sleeves out of your repertoire and replace them with straight or three-quarter sleeves so even the buffest arms don’t look like skinny sticks emerging from a shower cap.
"We want to look young, but not 12 years old. We want to look sexy, but not too sexy for a business cocktail party. We want to look classy, chic, sophisticated, rich, authoritative, powerful, smart, and fit. And we don’t think that’s too much to ask!"
No, I didn’t send such an e-mail. But designers did follow every single one of these directives. There’s such a great selection of party dresses out there that we could barely fit it onto these pages. All you have to do is decide which aspects of your figure you want to show off and which you’d rather keep behind the seams. Then print out this column, go forth, and shop — and let me know how it goes.
If You Love Your Awesome Arms
You’ll want to go sleeveless. Calvin Klein’s swingy matte jersey slipdress, with its draped bustline and sunburst pleated skirt, is a brilliant buy ($158). Kick up your heels in dressy chunky platforms, like Beverly Feldman’s petal-topped slingbacks ($195).
If You Love Your Long Legs
You’ll wear a mini, but not a micromini. Shoshanna’s easy-to-wear silk retro tunic ($460, also available in ivory) has a wide boatneck with sophisticated black gemstones in all the right places. A pop of animal print adds drama: Go for a standout like Moschino Cheap and Chic’s pony-hair peep-toe heels with bowtie ankle straps ($460).
If You Love Your Winning Waist
Celebrate your success in middle management by cinching your hourglass shape in a shirtdress. There’s something very chic about dressing a workhorse silhouette in fancy fabric, such as Charles Nolan’s crinkled silk taffeta ($498). Pair it with substantial foot jewelry: Kenneth Cole’s leather and suede gladiator heels with buttons ($195).
If You Love Your Beautiful Bustline
You want a sweetheart neckline (not a deep V), like this wool column dress by Chaiken ($392, also available in brown). It reveals just enough so you can feel confident wearing it to an office cocktail party — or on New Year’s Eve. Add some shine with Paco Girl’s patent pumps with Lucite heel ($300).
If You Love Your Sexy Back
Flaunt it over cocktails in David Meister’s stretch satin and matte jersey dress ($290), which sets itself apart with lingerie-like details — skinny straps and back seam — and covers you in front. Casadei’s strappy patent sandals have a killer gold heel ($660).
Charla Krupp is author of the style manifesto, How Not to Look Old, coming in January from Springboard Press.
Originally published in MORE magazine, November 2007.