Mirror, Mirror: Dresses that stay in memory

The little black dress Audrey Hepburn wore in "Sabrina," with Humphrey Bogart and William Holden.
The little black dress Audrey Hepburn wore in "Sabrina," with Humphrey Bogart and William Holden.

An authority adds facts behind the frocks.

Posted: October 26, 2011

If it's a famous frock, you can bet your breakfast at Tiffany's that Hal Rubenstein knows the story behind it.

Rubenstein is the fashion director for the glitzy, celebrity-driven InStyle magazine. His latest book, 100 Unforgettable Dresses (HarperDesign, 2011), is a testament to his knowledge of all the things tailored, glossy, and see-through that have become, well, unforgettable. The book was released Tuesday.

Stylish books regularly land on my desk, but this 206-page hardcover stood out because Rubenstein packed it with little-known fashion facts.

For example: It's common knowledge that Hubert de Givenchy was a favorite couturier of Audrey Hepburn's, but who knew he fought revered costume designer Edith Head for top fashion credits in Hepburn's most memorable films? Head was credited with designing the little black dress Hepburn wore in Sabrina; Givenchy designed it. Funny, we all know who went on to become the household name.

Rubenstein explains how silhouettes we take for granted became wardrobe staples: Diane von Furstenberg's wrap dress, Claire McCardell's kitchen dress, and the That Girl A-line. And Rubenstein name-checks iconic fashionistas from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Sarah Jessica Parker, with a little Michelle Obama sprinkled in.

He jogs our high-fashion memories by reminding us of moments such as Elizabeth Hurley wearing Gianni Versace's safety-pin gown in 1994 and Halle Berry's 2002 appearance at the Oscars in that sexy Elie Saab.

I recently caught up with the fair-haired writer after the European Spring 2012 collections to discuss what goes into making a dress unforgettable.

Question: Why 100 unforgettable dresses and why now?  

Answer: These dresses are unforgettable because they transcend through time and culture. They are exciting and nostalgic and they literally changed the way we dressed. . . .

As far as why now: people don't think they have the wallet or the time for fashion. Well, that's not true. Fashion is actually much more pervasive than the average person gives it credit for.

Q: What are the most important pics in the book?

A: They are in a very random order. Here are a few to look at: the Valentino dresses, he made us fall in love with red. Versace's safety-pin dress. The strapless debutante white dress worn by Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun. That dress became the standard for prom dresses. It's one of the ones we refer to as the "ultimate dress."

Q: Lady Gaga doesn't have the fashion longevity some of your other picks do. How did she make the cut?

A: Gaga is the most out-there singer you could possibly imagine, and Armani is one of the most established and most famous designers you could possibly imagine. When Gaga wore four dresses during that show [the 2010 Grammys], including the white satellite dress, it was the last combination of designer and performer you would ever expect.

Q: It hasn't even been a year since the royal wedding. How did the wedding gown for Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, get in the mix?

A: There are certain events - especially the wedding of a princess - that make you want to root for the fairy tale. This dress [designed by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen] was one that we wanted to root for. We wanted to see a bit of ourselves in Catherine and that dress. It was a beautiful dress, the only shame was that you couldn't really see the lace detailing. It was extraordinary. But it symbolized for us happy endings.

Q: What made Jackie O such an extraordinary icon in your eyes? You picked the white embroidered fabric from a Christian Dior gown she wore to a 1962 state dinner as the cover of your book.

A: Jackie Kennedy wanted the world to know America wasn't all about hot dogs and movies. Through her clothing, she got the point across that America was full of culture and elegance and charm. She wanted Europe to know that we could hold our own. Her taste reflected that.

Q: Do you have a favorite in the book?

A: One of my favorites is Princess Diana's revenge dress designed by London boutique owner Christina Stambolian. I love that dress because it shows the power of the dress. Here is a dress the princess bought three years before she ever wore it, but she thought it was too dramatic and too revealing for her.

Then [in 1994] she discovered her husband was going on national television to tell the world that he was in love with another woman. That was going to be a huge global embarrassment for her. So that night she wore the revenge dress, instead of the borrowed Valentino she planned [to an event at the Serpentine Gallery] and the dress became the second-most-photographed dress Diana ever wore.

Q: What makes a dress unforgettable?

A: It's a combination of the right dress on the right woman at the right time. I'm thinking about Jennifer Lopez in the deep-V Versace she wore to the 2000 Grammys. Donatella [Versace] wore that dress before her and nobody thought anything of it, but when Jennifer wore it. . . .


Mirror, Mirror:

Elizabeth Wellington blogs on fashion at www.philly.com/philly/

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Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704, ewellington@phillynews.com, or @ewellingtonphl on Twitter.

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