Has any item of clothing in the history of fashion walked the fine line between refined and risqué as much as the slip dress? One need only recall its glory days in the 1990s, when the style was identified with both the elegant Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and the less polished Courtney Love, to recognize its inherent duality.
Luckily for avoiders of grunge nostalgia, the versions that slinked down the spring 2014 runways of labels such as Narciso Rodriguez, Wes Gordon and Jason Wu are more dalliancefriendly than dishevelled-looking, incorporating contemporary fabrics and cleaner shapes. Even DKNY, the label responsible for the infamous "naked dress" worn by Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City, is reissuing the style in a more forgiving cut this spring to mark the brand's 25th anniversary.
"It's no longer a matter of wearing lingerie as ready-to-wear," says Kirk Pickersgill, one of the designers of the Toronto label Greta Constantine. "Instead, it's a matter of finding influence in the simplicity of the silhouette. [Today's version] remains consistent with the slip dress of seasons past, but we're seeing a wider variety of fabrications used in place of traditional satin." Greta Constantine's floorgrazing take is cut from a sequin-covered microfibre knit that gives the normally flimsy look a fitted, futuristic edge.
When you're a direct descendant of lingerie, however, it can be hard to shake the taint of boudoir. Witness the pyjama dressing look, which has popped up on trend reports for a number of seasons and is a literal interpretation of bedtime clothes, such as silky buttonups and drawstring trousers, adapted for daytime wear. By contrast, this spring's slip dresses look sporty and strong.
Heidi Sopinka, one of the founders of Toronto-based Horses Atelier, says that the evolution of the silhouette suggests designers learned an important lesson from the last round of slip dresses.
"The dresses we saw in the nineties were cut on the bias, which is not flattering to most women, unless you look like a waif," Sopinka says. She and co-designer Claudia Dey favour A-line shapes and squared-off necklines to make the style more universally wearable. Substantial fabrics such as silk shantung – traditionally used for wedding gowns or as a lining in men's coats – also give the shape more structure. And despite the style's popularity with boundary-pushing exhibitionists like Love and model Kate Moss (who effectively invented the "nipple slip" when she donned a totally transparent slip dress with a pair of black bikini briefs in the early 1990s), the new versions can even convey an aura of modesty.
"The lightness, luxuriousness and history associated with the slip plays into its mystique," says Christina Remenyi, owner and designer at Fortnight Lingerie. "There's something compelling about a layer that's both glamorous and versatile at the same time."
As strictly underwear, the slip, Remenyi says, gives women confidence by enhancing the way their clothes look and fall on their bodies. As outerwear, it provides the opprtunity, she adds appreciatively, to play with layering. "A beautiful bra peeking out from the neckline can completely transform the look," she says.
Lisa Tant, vice president and fashion editor at Holt Renfrew, feels that slip-dress success comes down to styling, citing chunky sandals and sophisticated makeup as ways to update the look. She also admits, though, that the style isn't for everyone.
"It's so minimal," she says, "it takes a strong woman to pull it off."
Marilisa Racco's book Instant Expert Lingerie will be released this month by Princeton Architectural Press.