This summer of tentative re-engagement with normality has its first dress code. The tracksuits that were the uniform of lockdown have been replaced by the “re-entry dress”: a short, voluminous black dress that is Zoom-friendly yet picnic-appropriate, with a nod to Marianne in Normal People and puff sleeves for built-in social distancing. This new take on the classic little black dress is emerging as the sequel to Zara’s monochrome polka-dot dress, the surprise hit of last summer.
“One is never overdressed or underdressed in a little black dress,” said the late Karl Lagerfeld. The go-anywhere properties of the LBD are being rediscovered as women dress to cover all bases in the current social twilight zone. With most office-based employees still working from home but government messaging – and the eat out to help out scheme – encouraging us to return to pubs and restaurants, the dress is proving popular across the booming wardrobe categories of WFH, Zoom-dressing, al-fresco socialising and staycationing.
The 2020 renaissance of the puff-sleeved little black dress was set in motion two years ago at Vanity Fair’s Oscars party, by the model Kendall Jenner in a short black dress with outsize puff sleeves by the ethical Italian brand Redemption, which donates half its profits to charity. At London fashion week this year, the style made a strong showing in Simone Rocha’s autumn collection.
After the pandemic hit, the LBD was boosted by the BBC drama series Normal People, in which the character of Marianne (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) was hailed a lockdown Venus, with a standout black sundress providing much-needed glamour when it was sorely lacking.
The logistics of this summer’s park- and garden-based social life have popularised dark colours for grass-stain resistance. A loose silhouette lends itself to the picnic rug, which has replaced the bar stool for cocktail-hour seating. And dramatic puffed sleeves – until recently considered a catwalk affectation – have become a practical social-distancing aid.
With festivals, weddings and parties cancelled, the re-entry dress is not in a position to rival the runaway success of last year’s Zara bestseller. Even in July, with most shops reopened, consumer spending was down 2.6% year on year. But an £85 mini-dress with bubble-shaped sleeves and black ruffle-trimmed tiers from the high street store & Other Stories has done brisk business. “The dress is lightweight, cotton, super airy – I had seen the style on social media, and I was immediately drawn to it,” says Alex Stedman, the editor of the affordable-fashion site the-frugality.com, who has posted photos of herself wearing the dress over the past three months. Arket has a similar style in black broderie anglaise for £79, while an H&M take on the look is on sale for £8.
The short, loose black dress is “almost a wardrobe staple” for Daisy Hoppen, the founder of the PR firm DH-PR and a fixture of the London fashion circuit, who calls it her “summer witch” look. This summer, she has been wearing a bow-detailed black crepe dress by the designer Molly Goddard, the creator of Villanelle’s iconic pink tulle dress in Killing Eve. “I am a big advocate for a poufy dress, which feels breezy in the summer heat,” Hoppen says. “I like mini ones that you can wear with Birkenstock or Teva sandals. This year, more than ever, a poufy LBD feels like the simplest way to dress. It looks good on a Zoom call, it’s incredibly comfortable and, now that we are finally meeting up with friends and family – socially distanced of course – it works for that, too.”
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