At least her dress stayed intact. Not so for a short sequined Bill Blass sheath Nina Griscom wore 10 years ago. “I sat down, and the chair had some caning on it. And when I got up, the dress was bald on the butt,” she says, laughing. “I had it resequined, but it was never the same.”
Designer Lisa Perry just barely avoided a similar mishap with a vintage Paco Rabanne chain dress made of delicate, dentable square paillettes. “I bought it with every intention of wearing it,” she recalls. “I put it on, and my husband said, ‘Honey, how are you going to sit in that?’ And I sat down to test it and gasped. It’s such a collector’s item that I didn’t want to ruin it or bend it.”
Unfortunately, she didn’t perform such a trial run with a look she created for the Paul Poiret–theme Met gala two years ago. Inspired by the fashion legend, Perry wore a black and white minidress with a stiff wire lampshade hem—so stiff, in fact, that she stayed vertical for the entire car ride there. “I had to kind of crouch in the back, holding on to the front seat,” she says, laughing. This strategy didn’t save her during dinner, however: “When I sat down [the skirt] popped up, and you could see straight up my dress.” Thankfully the table blocked the view from her companions.
Such predicaments are certainly not new. “These are contemporary manifestations of a very old problem,” says Phyllis Magidson, curator of costumes and textiles at the Museum of the City of New York. Indeed, between crinolines, bustles, panniers and hoopskirts, women from previous centuries had a host of details with which to contend. “Much of your training as a lady who would be wearing fine things involved maneuvering gracefully in them, anticipating the fact that there were clothes that you would not sit down in,” continues Magidson, referring to such looks as Elizabethan garments encrusted with pearls, glass stones and mirrors.
That said, Magidson points out that many of the obstacles that modern women might deem insurmountable were actually manageable for those schooled in dealing with them. “Bustles you could move to the side. Panniers in the 18th century would generally collapse,” she says.
And even some more recent couturiers have realized the challenges of sitting in a dress. “We have in our own collection a Worth ballgown from 1897, which is probably the most elaborate dress we have,” Magidson says of a piece that was made for a mother of the bride. “It’s embroidered in glass pearls, however not at the back of the skirt, because Jean-Philippe Worth was well aware that it would have been totally preposterous and counterproductive.”
Historically, fashionable women were not expected to accomplish much while in their garments, but their present-day counterparts live in a fast-paced society that would seem to render non-seat-friendly concoctions anachronistic. Are contemporary designers any more thoughtful?