Last summer, I found myself hovering, mid-double tap, over a photo posted by The Corner Store, the cult LA-based vintage Instagram seller run by stylist and makeup artist Stacey Nishimoto. The caption: “Heaven’s Gate dress.1970s Victorian inspired voile cotton dress trimmed in cream frothy lace.” The Heaven’s Gate reference being to the 1980 Michael Cimino period western, not the Nike-wearing UFO cult. It was about a month before Creatures of Comfort’s Crucible-appropriate Sequoia dress would be mocked on Twitter, and another in a long line of instances of 20-somethings on Instagram wearing ankle-length ditsy florals or taking mirror selfies in bonnets that made me go, “Huh?”
More and more is it apparent that fashion is experiencing a revival of an extra-ruffly gentility. Crafty, conservative, body-obscuring looks that would be just as at home on the women in Westworld or Chloë Sevigny in Big Love as they would on recent runways at Coach, Erdem, or Vetements. New York-based brand Batsheva, helmed by the Georgetown and Stanford-educated former lawyer Batsheva Hay, has cultivated its DNA on a re-creation of old-school prairie dressing, featuring feminine riffs on high-necked, frilly frocks for women and young girls in a spare collection of styles, including the Apron and the Bib. Part of Batsheva’s ethos, as is stated on its site, is “taking elements symbolic of restraint and repression (high collars, voluminous sleeves and skirts) and giving them a modern inflection.”
But why? Or, moreso, why does being covered up and wrapped in ruffles feel so right right now? We can maybe chalk it up to an infatuated nostalgia with the wilds of the American West in a period when the idea of what America is, is undeniably fraught with turmoil; or perhaps it's a reaction to the #BalmainArmy and Kardashian-peddled contoured athleisure that has become the look that will define this decade in the future. Or, in a time when women’s rights are chronically under attack, dressing has taken on a new form of protective, shape-obscuring armor — and, well, the more fabric between us and the world, the better.
The question, though, is whether the urge for (an albeit luxe version of) homesteading simplicity speaks more to a desire for an unfettered fantasy of literal pioneering womanhood, or the fantasy of the comfort of crisp and hardy fabrics of a far-off, preserved girlhood.
Back in the ‘50s, designer Laura Ashley and her husband Bernard started rolling out their own versions of Victoriana and traditional handcraft-influenced textiles under the Laura Ashley label. First their focus was on a mix of petit bourgeois odds and ends like napkins, tea towels, and scarves; but it was their antique-y microflorals, patchwork, and “shabby chic” upholstery-minded calicos, constructed into modest puffed-sleeved, long-sleeved dresses, that catapulted the fledgling label to stardom. After the brash sexuality of the ‘60s micro-mini, what Ashley delivered was license to fantasize about the throwback romance of "simpler times." Her nipped-in waist, full-skirted confections were seemingly more suitable for an original Stepford Wife than the women who were living through the first wave of feminism, fighting for equal rights, and sexual liberation.
In 1976, Yves Saint Laurent did the couture version of the peasant look, and it wasn’t until the ‘70s that the twists on the “working the land” aesthetic of the American prairie — bohemian versions of the garb of Willa Cather heroines and the homespun traditional dress of Amish and Mennonite women — went mass market. This was due in part to the influence of Laura Ashley and Gunne Sax, a San Francisco-based label that was marketed to young women as an option for hippie formal dressing. Pop culture reflected what was in the air as well: the television adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, with period-appropriate wardrobe, premiered in 1974; Peter Weir’s pink-tinged, fever dream early 1900s-set Australian thriller, Picnic at Hanging Rock, featuring an ensemble of boarding school-aged girls in ruffled-high-necked day dresses, was released the next year.
Now, back in our current time, Batsheva has built a cult following among the Instagram it-girls, who know where to find the most photogenic avocado toast, whether in New York or LA, the ones who can wear those items your mom took to the Salvation Army a decade ago and yet they make them look like luxury. They style their ankle-grazing, arm-covering ruffled dresses with contemporary streetwear staples like sneakers, or the ubiquitous “dad” baseball cap. Vogue.com site director and former T editor-in-chief Sally Singer wore the “Bib” while sitting front row at Raf Simons’s spring fashion show for Calvin Klein. Fans have Instagrammed themselves in the label’s dresses and a matching bonnet; another captioned an image of themselves in a Batsheva look, which read, “serving u steamy laura ingalls wilder.”
But let’s be honest: More than a dose of irony seems to be a prerequisite for stepping out in a bonnet on a Manhattan street (as well as a yen for full body-swaddled comfort). And the Batsheva Instagram feed gives a good gist of the affect the brand aims to achieve— prim, fashionable, and appealingly tongue-in-cheek — posts of vintage Laura Ashley ads and Princess Diana in a wide [good-girl-gone-bad!] lace collar, Barbra Streisand in Yentl, and the flounce-dressed members of the L.A. cult The Source Family live side-by-side with snapshots of the designer in beloved childhood dresses and Tina Barney photographs of frilly domestic life.
In 2017, to dress like a doomed member of the Donner Party is a deliberate choice, in the way that normcore was an arty rebuke to capital-F fashion. Recontextualizing the potentially dowdy, puffed-sleeved, floor-grazing style has been key in reselling it to a new generation. Cult vintage resellers (like Nishimoto’s shop) have reintroduced the aesthetic of vintage Laura Ashley and Gunne Sax and the garments’ myriad references (fairy tale, hippie, Edwardian) as precious objects that look covetable on Instagram and provide a tactile form of escapism.
It’s fitting that Batsheva also offers dresses for little girls (one of Laura Ashley’s hallmark styles of the ‘80s and ‘90s, was “mommy and me” style dressing. Hay told Vogue.com much of her inspiration to start the line came when dressing her young daughter). But on adult women, historical dressing and the comfort of special occasion childhood clothing can be a test in fantasy, read in a way that brushes up close to costume and weaponizes the naiveté of girlhood and modesty (in a way, similar to Courtney Love’s “kinderwhore” look), bringing the wearer into an arena of the perverse or gothic, sitting closer to the girls in Picnic in Hanging Rock or the group of Civil War-era women in Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled, whose faded petticoated pastel finery masks dark impulses for sex and murder.
In 2013, a retrospective of Ashley’s work opened at the Fashion Museum in Bath, England, titled “The Romantic Heroine.” It’s an apt descriptor of the sort of avatar of archetypal romantic fantasies, whether it’s Catherine looking for Heathcliff or Kate Bush searching for Cathy. Or the cyborg Dolores in Westworld, whose cornflower blue bodice and skirt conceals a conflicted (and coincidentally, murderous) inner life. The self-awareness of a reference is key. For those buttoning up their calicos in the 21st century, rather than the 19th, they know that docile sweetness and light still has plenty of grit.