Why are pioneer dresses all the rage now ?

You resisted the offensive of the little sweater with ruffles on the front? Deliberately ignored the return of the Victorian blouse favored by the Bronte sisters? You’re going to suffer this winter. Because this season, Brexit or no, H&M, Asos, UO  & Co are all showing: pie crust collars a la Lady Di; ruffles all over and liberty prints a la Laura Ashley, the British queen of virginal country dresses of the 1970’s; not to mention lace jabots and pagoda or leg of mutton sleeves, just like the pre-Raphaelite section of the Tate.

In the trendy areas of New York (Greenpoint, NoLita…),  it's even worse ! We run into ravishing creatures in long dresses in childlike prints (little flowers, gingham…), decorated with embroidery.   The New York Times baptized them “Urban Prairie Girls”, because over there, this kind of look evokes more of Little House on the Prairie than Jane Austen. The “Pioneer Dress”? Several brands (Ulla Johnson, but also Gucci or Chloé) are showing it. But the most media savvy of the lot is Batsheva, like the biblical name Batsheva Hay, a 38-year-old New Yorker, ex business lawyer. One day, she wants to copy her favorite dress that’s wearing out, a vintage piece signed…Laura Ashley! But she decides to improve on the original model by adding bouffant sleeves, lots of frills and ruffles, and taking in the waist. The day she wears it for the first time, all her friends want one. Just like Chloë Sevigny, Jessica Castain, Nathalie Portman or Lena Dunham!

The “Batsheva Dress” in vintage fabric bought on E-bay, is a runaway success. But why in the year 2018 do today’s fashionistas disguise themselves as Wisconsin farmers of the 1870’s? The press is unanimous in asking. Is it Americana nostalgia, which we see in deco as well? The need to return to the unifying ideal of the pioneers, in a country more divided than ever? Or the desire to own the dress that we dreamed of when we were 6 years old (dixit Lena Dunham)? Or is it, even more devious, a new offensive of “modest fashion” that wants us to cover up from head to toe? Knowing that Alexei Hay (Batsheva’s husband and a well-known fashion photographer) has recently become more orthodox in his Judaism, everyone is asking if it’s really kosher!

Reactionary or subversive this Batsheva dress? Impossible to decide: the stylist clouds the issue. She admits to being fascinated by the rigor and the modesty of the Hassidic or Amish (apron dresses, pinafore dresses, bonnets) wardrobe. But she cites Cindy Sherman and Courtney Love amongst her major influences. Besides, her fans wear their flowered dresses with Air Force One’s or Doc Marten’s: not really the dress code for a well brought up mother.

Luckily the site gives us a few keys: “BATSHEVA plays with American styles of feminine dress – from Victorian to Pioneer; from Housewife to Hippie – by taking elements symbolic of restraint and repression (high collars, voluminous sleeves and skirts) and giving them a modern inflection. By retooling historical looks, BATSHEVA explores how to extract the strong and beautiful aspects of those styles while rejecting antiquated notions of womanhood. “ The designer often evokes the feeling of “liberation” that we feel in wearing a dress that says (more or less) “fuck sexy in the first degree”. We got it: the Batsheva dress is neo-feminist! And wearing a dress that sweeps the stairs in the subway is a new way of “power dressing”. We’re sold. Just like the poor housekeeper who has to iron all those ruffles and frills…