The first time I remember being aware of the maxi dress was about five years ago, when I was on a trip to New York and found myself standing in line at an Upper East Side bagel store behind a woman wearing one. It was blue and white striped, and fitted over her large breasts, but the rest of it was an alternately flowing and clinging tent. She asked for her bagel scooped out—duh—and also bought a Diet Coke. She was texting with two thumbs, and her toes were newly painted tangerine orange, and I know this because her toes were the sole evidence that her body did in fact possess a lower half. I remember thinking about the timeless Sylvia Plath line “cow-heavy in my Victorian nightgown” and how “cow-heavy in my enormous fucking dress” just didn’t have the same ring to it.
For the rest of the time I was in New York, I saw more and more of these dresses. They were often worn by a certain type of woman, aged 25 to 35, generally busty, generally working out some kind of tense negotiation between prettiness and being angry about something their phone told them. I’ll put it this way: During that whole visit, whenever I saw a woman wearing a maxi dress, I made a mental note: “Never ever find yourself on a Saturday morning standing in between this woman and the entrance to her neighborhood Drybar.”
I was just about to develop the opinion that women with large breasts should not wear maxi dresses when, soon after, back in California, I saw a very tall flat-chested woman wearing a maxi dress. The dress exposed at least some of her ankles, making me marginally less tempted to inquire if she wanted someone to tuck her in and read her Goodnight, Gorilla. But, even though she was a real knockout—and, despite my tone here, the bagel shop woman was as well—the dress was far from flattering. In some ways it almost looked worse on her than it had on the shorter, bustier woman. You see, it is quite an effort to be tall. It is hard to cart around so much self. So when you add miles and miles of fabric, the fabric is a barometer of the strain it takes to move your form through space. You strain, and the fabric strains with you.
My point is: Maxi dresses look bad on everyone.
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I wish the story of maxi dresses could be found in fossil records. Alas, I had better luck with an informative, albeit slightly triggering blog post entitled “Mini History of the Maxi Dress.” Writing in the summer of 2008—potential dissertation title: Double Bubble: The Housing Crisis and the Matching Fashion Crisis That Followed!—fashion historian Heather Vaughan opened up the conversation by observing she saw a lot of women at that year’s San Francisco Jazz Festival sporting “the new summer hit.” (Pause to imagine these three awful things, i.e. jazz, maxi dresses, San Francisco, all in one place.) Vaughan guesses the first modern maxi dress was a white lacy Oscar de la Renta number that appeared in 1968. Other designers—YSL, Dior and Halston among them—followed suit. The maxi dress became extremely popular at the beginning of the ‘70s and was gone by the end of them. Gone, but not forgotten.
I have dim memories of my mom and some of her friends in maxi dresses in the ‘70s and thinking they were pretty nice. Granted, my mother was not gifted/cursed with the enormous breasts I have which have ensured that I have never owned one, because, truly: as bad as maxi dresses look on everyone, they are absolutely the worst on my body type, which is tall and busty. If you are tall and have a big rack and you’re thinking about getting a maxi dress, find me on Twitter and I will actually take time out of sipping nettle tea and rearranging my collection of flattering fit-and-flare dresses to talk you out of it.
Now, I am not the only person who thinks maxi dresses are ugly. The internet is littered with maxi dress bafflement. A bad one can make even Poppy Delevingne or the Jenner sisters appear on worst-dressed lists. There are many like-minded folks on Twitter, expressing relatable sentiments such as:
Sadly, the return of warm weather every year brings the return of the maxi dress. You can still go to any big department store—or any online retailer—and look for maxi dresses, and find them. Famous fancy designers like Ann Demeulemeester are still putting maxi dresses on the runway. Pinterest is a veritable minefield of maxi dresses. (I am not showing any more maxi dress photos or linking to anything else because that would just be giving the maxi dress people what they want.)
It’s one thing that maxi dresses won’t go away, but what’s even sadder was that I had no luck finding a fashion expert who would just agree with me. Granted, a bunch of people—people like Tim Gunn—didn’t get back to me. I also sent my questions—essentially variations on a theme of “Why do people still wear maxi dresses?” “Don’t people know how ugly maxi dresses are?” and “Can nothing be done?”—to an agent who represents stylists, but he kept asking me who I was, and after a while, I honestly had no idea. Fran Lebowitz’s agent couldn’t have been nicer but she told me I would have to send Lebowitz a letter. I wrote back, “Okay, but first I have to find a place that sells pens,” and that was the end of that.
Thankfully, Stacy London, former host of What Not To Wear and current host of Love, Lust or Run (if anyone understands what this show is about, will you please tell me?) did respond. She issued this appropriate warning to potential maxi-dress wearers: “Petite women (under 5’3”) can look like they are drowning in fabric so proportion is very important when choosing a maxi. Likewise, women with larger chests should look for styles that allow for a supportive bra.”
Nice caveats there. Then, London has to go and ruin it all by ultimately being a fan: “Maxi dresses are sort of a panacea for the difficulty some face in putting together outfits or if one doesn’t feel like something body conscious but still has A style. The maxi dress can speak to a bohemian trend or a 1970s trend. They look great with head scarves, gladiator sandals, platforms, oodles of jewelry. So many options with one easy silhouette make this continually a go-to item.”
(As we all know, the best way to improve on something that already looks so fucking awesome is to add “oodles of jewelry.”)
The first time I read London’s ode to grown women dressing like some kind of MILF Dalai Lama, I read the “A” in “A Style”—despite its telltale capitalization—as an indefinite article, much like “a cat.” I was like, “Wow, pretty low standards there for a Vassar girl, Stacy!” and then I realized she probably meant A-Style, like A-list, at which point I began wondering if there was some sort of maxi dress lobby, and also if, should I one day be approached by said lobby, how much they would have to pay me to characterize maxi dresses as “one easy silhouette” rather than “one easy way to insure the only person who will bring you to orgasm for the rest of your life is you.”
I also wrote to celebrity stylist El Shane, because I met her at a fashion shoot once (oh, how flattering of you to ask—no, I was the writer, not the model!) and thought she was nice, and I’ve seen her say some funny interesting things about fashion since. When I saw that she’d responded, I was so excited, but she too had refused to play ball.
“Maxi dresses,” wrote El Shane, “are the ultimate spring fashion must-have item. They will never go out of style because they work for every body type. When trends are comfortable, they tend to linger for years!” (Hey El. That was a great giggle fit we had in the elevator at the Beverly Center in 2012. Thought you might be interested in knowing that you are now dead to me.)
Is it possible that Stacy London has been planted in our midst by Big Cotton to spread the lie that it is advisable to use 20 yards of fabric to make a dress when 2 would do? Is Stacy London possibly a robot? Did they give her that gray streak because they were like “No one will ever think we gave a robot gray hair, it’s genius!”? As I was considering this my friend Melissa wrote to remind me: “One of the worst things about maxi dresses is that they often have a wooden ring between the boobs” and now it seemed indeed possible that shady manufacturers of wooden ring notions might also have a hand in having taken our nation hostage to this trend.
As I now had so many questions to which I might never find answers, I found myself talking about maxi dresses with my therapist, and how I thought I remembered them from the ‘70s, and maybe they were kind of cool then, or maybe I was just too young to understand. I was thrilled beyond measure when, instead of saying, “I don’t think we should talk abut maxi dresses in therapy, Sarah,” she said, “Oh my God, I hate maxi dresses. They are horrible. The most horrible maxi dresses are the jersey ones. They show everything. They are so unflattering.”
We agreed that maxi dresses of non-stretchy material were perhaps slightly less awful, but for their power to fetishize pregnancy/motherhood and in light of the simple fact that there are other, better things to wear, that there was still precious little justification for their existence. So delighted was I that she showed an interest I actually brought up the Vaughn article on my phone, not because I wanted to read it, but because it contained a photo of a shareably ugly maxi dress. But she read the post anyway, and then said, “See, this is what I just said. It’s right here!” And so it was: “Initially, Maxi-dresses appeared lacy and slightly shorter than ankle length (while today’s versions seem to be mostly cotton jersey and down to the heel.)”
In other words, maxi dresses used to be long, but they weren’t so long they made it look like you just got attacked by the Evil Fabric Monster, and they ate you, but still let your head and pedi stick out. And in terms of fabric, while maxi dresses in the ‘70s were made out of things like lace or shiny sexy polyester or groovy calico, today’s versions are mostly made out of COTTON JERSEY. Could that, maybe, have something to do with why they’re so incredibly awful and look bad on EVERYONE? Could it be that draping yourself in yards and yard of a fabric that tends to pill unattractively and, even when there are no bumps, highlights every single bump, and also clings to undergarments and sticks to your legs when you’re walking is like—I don’t know—maybe kind of a stupid idea?
I think I shouted all of this to my therapist. And she listened patiently and said, “It sounds like you don’t like maxi dresses.” Then she told me that people would never stop wearing them because they were comfortable and that people were more interested in their own comfort than pleasing me, and we discussed my inability to inhabit some sort of consistent grace in spite of that fact was the pursuit of such was exactly why I was here.
I end this story as we end life. Alone. Well. Not entirely alone.
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Other images via Zulily/Twitter.
Sarah Miller writes for theawl.com, newyorker.com, time.com, thecut.com and others. Find her @sarahlovescali.