This fall, the annual New Yorkers for Children Gala was a traffic jam of jewel-toned column dresses, black tuxedos, and popping flashbulbs. The crowd parted, however, with the arrival of Ivanka Trump. Was it the heiress’s star power that had guests taking a step back? The 6-foot sometime model’s towering physical presence? Neither—it was her dress: an imposing Carolina Herrera satin gown with multiple bows, a modified bustle skirt, and a train so long that partygoers had no choice but to move aside.
In our casual age, when men rarely bother with a jacket for the opera, one would think such a major dress an anomaly. But Trump was barely in the room 10 minutes before she ran into former hedge fund manager Julie Macklowe, decked out in an equally elaborate blue-sequined Zang Toi number that trailed several feet behind her. “You make me feel better about my train!” said Trump, laughing.
These days, the dress code at black tie events is not so black and white. Cocktail frocks, microminis, and even Le Smoking suits are all commonplace at charity galas. But as styles have fluctuated—Balmain’s puff shoulders giving way to minimal Céline sheaths—one silhouette has remained a stalwart: the ballgown. With corseted bodices and huge skirts composed of enough fabric to warm a family of seven, these dresses are the very definition of high maintenance. Their exaggerated proportions render both dancing and eating potentially painful; they practically require an extra seat at the dinner table; and forget about squeezing into a cab on your way home. Still, each autumn, as the social season kicks into high gear, Cinderella styles inevitably return—trends be damned. So how has the ballgown managed to survive, somehow transcending fashion itself? What accounts for its lasting appeal?
For some, romanticism and fairy tale fantasies are the draw. Alexandra Lebenthal, financial exec by day, charity-circuit regular by night, bought her first ballgown, a silver-and-black-lace Elizabeth Fillmore, 15 years ago. She owns at least 20, acquiring a new one each season from designers like Douglas Hannant and Angel Sanchez. “The more train, the more bustle, the more beading—the happier I am,” she says. “My job is so not about being romantic or a princess; it’s a man’s world. The opportunity to be in this long, flowing gown lets me leave everything that happened during the day behind.”
Psychiatrist and society-page fixture Samantha Boardman, meanwhile, can trace her love of full-skirt dresses to the Carolina Herrera organza gown she wore at her Waldorf-Astoria debut when she was 18. “I think that’s when I drank the Kool-Aid,” she says. “There was no turning back.” Her collection now includes designs by Rochas, Giambattista Valli, Oscar de la Renta, and Vera Wang. “It’s the way it feels, the way it sounds when you move, the whole process of getting into it and doing it up—it takes a village to put one on.”