Whether it’s a christening smock or a prom dress, a school pinafore or a wedding gown, dresses have historically been markers for certain rites of passage. Even if you forwent tradition in these instances, you could argue that the presence of the dress was still felt in its absence. It was, and still is, an item of clothing that has had a hard time shaking off its cultural baggage. Thankfully, over the last decade, the fashion industry has started to champion new ways of expressing the dress and in turn opened up conversations around how we present femininity, frumpiness, sexuality and flattery. In more recent years, social media has also offered smaller brands a voice and a chance to disrupt certain design tropes by delivering innovative dresses that are as eclectic as the women who wear them. One thing’s for sure: In 2020, there’s no single way to rock the frock.
You can transport yourself to the prairie lands of the 19th century with Batsheva, throw back to the ’70s with the retro swagger of Rixo, embrace the otherwordly whimsy of Cecilie Bahnsen and rest in the stripped-back simplicity of COS. Each brand has its own voice and character, yet they’re notably united by a versatility that hasn't typically been prioritised in dress design. To create a functioning modern wardrobe, we need pieces that can adapt, chameleon-like, to the changing demands of our lives, not only for the purpose of cost-efficiency but also to make our shopping habits more sustainable. Versatility is key.
“The dress has always been an important wardrobe staple, but I think it’s become more commonplace to wear a dress in different ways for a variety of occasions,” explains Suzanne Pendlebury, womenswear buyer at MatchesFashion.com. “People are more open to teaming a dress with knitwear or clumpier shoes and boots or layering pieces so that they can work for daytime too. It makes more sense, as you get more from your investment.”
Being thrust into a world that is shaped by social distancing has arguably cemented this demand, but now, comfort is at the top of our tick list, closely followed by a craving for mood-boosting styles. “Although there is a global pandemic and people are stuck at home, you can still put on a great dress and instantly lift your mood,” says Lily Russo-Bah, a former fashion editor and the co-founder of Beach Flamingo. “I know for myself, making an effort in the morning has really helped my frame of mind, especially when working from home.”
The numbers don’t lie: According to online fashion database Lyst, searches for comfy styles, such as wrap and maxi dresses, are up, with the former seeing a 13% rise week-on-week and the latter a 16% rise year-on-year. “Anything casual and comfortable is selling right now,” confirms Isabel Spearman, journalist and founder of Daily Dress Edit. “As I have discovered over the 12 days of hosting a virtual pop-up selling purely dresses, the top sellers were the easy-to-wear day dresses in looser-fitting styles made in good-quality fabrics.”
MatchesFashion.com predicts that the next 12 months will see a continued shift toward a more relaxed approach to dressing. “That’s not to say all casual but a sense of relaxed elegance and ease,” Pendlebury explains. “It will be an effortless style, so even if we are, in a sense, getting dressed up, I think we will want to feel comfortable whilst still feeling special.” This sentiment is backed up by our own data here at Who What Wear, and we’ve seen a huge spike in interest around “throw-on” dresses—a term that we only started using in 2020. One throw-on, puff-sleeve minidress by H&M has outperformed previous best sellers by a whopping 72% this year.
There’s no doubt about it: Dresses are big business. Whatever form they take, we can safely say that this is a staple that will grace our wardrobes for many years to come. But what does the dress landscape actually look like in this precise moment in time? To get a snapshot, we harnessed our insider know-how, digital insights and industry contacts to piece together the state of the dress 2020, covering everything from the hottest up-and-comers and the silhouette of the moment to celeb faves and the best of British designers. Scroll down to see the creatives acing it in the dress stakes right now.
Photo:Cecilie Bahnsen, SS20 Photographer: Josefine Seifert; Getty images
How do I love thee, Cecilie Bahnsen? Let me count the ways. Beautifully voluminous, deliciously cloud-like and delicately dramatic, it’s not hard to understand why the brand has seen such stratospheric success over the last year. Founded in Denmark in 2014, Cecilie Bahnsen has garnered a very stylish following, with everyone from Bettina Looney and Anna Rosa Vitiello to María Bernad and Pernille Teisbaek pledging their allegiance. When the brand hosted its A/W 20 runway show earlier this year, there weren’t many corners of Instagram that weren’t populated with its frothy creations. While Bahnsen's main selling point is drama, it also manages to remain decidedly versatile. I've seen editors wearing their dresses with both strappy heels and statement earrings, and sneakers and chunky knits. It’s rare to come across an up-and-comer that has such a strong viewpoint and brand identity, but therein lies the appeal of Cecilie Bahnsen. You can't help but fall in love with it.
Oh, COS. You’ve long been a staple of the Great British high street, forever loyal to your stripped-back cause. Historically catering to an unattainably chic crowd of art curators and quirky fashion lecturers, you haven't always engaged the mainstream, but the last few seasons have seen a shift. Due to the industry's renewed love for all things minimalist, your championing of design that transcends the seasons is finally starting to pay off. Really, you were way ahead of your time. This season, you have managed to perfect that tricky balance of delivering dress designs that not only stay true to your roots but also feel cutting-edge, whether it’s through a contemporary colourway or an unusual fabric. Personal favourites include a ribbed-knit green midi dress and a vibrant-pink linen number that has already been snapped up by one of the Who What Wear team.
Considering the region's innovation in areas of design and sustainability, it comes as no surprise that not one but two Scandi brands have made it into our 2020 dress hall of fame. Stine Goya might not be new to the scene, but we've watched as the brand’s playful approach to print and colour has brought joy to the masses this year. Delivering that modern Scandi combo of simple silhouettes with bright colourways and just a hint of retro styling, the brand and its dresses are just as likely to show up at a summer wedding as they are in a sunny city park. Stine Goya also recently announced that its next brick-and-mortar store, Goya Gallery, will be dedicated to archive collections, allowing us to nab those pieces we missed out on the first time around. Business savvy and sustainability rarely go hand in hand, but Stine Goya is one of the brands that is leading the way. “We have always focused on designing timeless styles in vibrant prints, but sometimes in the rush to create newness season-on-season, it can feel that you lose that core purpose,” explains founder Stine Goya. “Goya Gallery has been therapeutic in that it’s given me an opportunity to delve into the history of the brand and redefine our vision for the future.”
It’s not quite the frivolity of florals, but neither is it the blank planes of minimalism: Checks really are the just-right Goldilocks offering of the print world. It might not be the most groundbreaking dress option, but the check's ageless appeal is undoubtedly part of what has caught the imagination of the fashion crowd. According to Lyst, searches for gingham dresses have increased by 49% in the last week alone, and whether it’s Dorothy-inspired gingham or aristocratic Prince of Wales check, this is the sort of print that everyone can get on board with. At the upper end of the spectrum, we’re looking to brands such as Solid & Striped, Ganni and Sleeper for inspiration, while on the high street, it’s & Other Stories and Topshop leading the way in the check aesthetic. Styling-wise for 2020, we're bringing an edgy twist with chunky sandals and moody colourways.
Photo:Getty; The Vampire's Wife; @alexachung
In the world of celebrity styling, it can be tricky, if not impossible, for a new brand to create a stir, especially when you’re competing against a red carpet dominated by the likes of Valentino, Gucci and Dior. Yet The Vampire’s Wife has cracked it. Co-founded by Susie Cave in 2014, the brand started to gain momentum back in 2017 when the cool-girl crowd—think Alexa Chung, Sienna Miller and Keira Knightley—all wore the brand's Festival dress in quick succession. Drawn to the dress's figure-flattering fit, nipped-in waist and round neckline, style-conscious celebrities soon regarded it a must-have. The VW fan base has continued to grow and now includes an impressive line-up of Hollywood icons such as Lisa Bonet, Chloë Grace Moretz, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Aniston, to name a few. There have even been a few royal appearances (oh hey, Kate Middleton and Princess Beatrice), and at Harry and Meghan's wedding, three attendees were spotted in the brand’s retro-inspired frocks. If that's not a seal of approval, then we don't know what is.
When I was growing up, Ghost was a brand that sat firmly in the bridesmaid and prom dress categories. While its iconically ’90s figure-skimming, silken designs were beautiful, over time, they got slightly lost in a sea affordable high-street offerings. Fast-forward to 2017 when Sameera Azeem was hired as fashion director and brought a new energy to the brand. That year, sales on Ghost’s website were up 95% compared to 2014. With a plethora of prints and flattering fits, the Ghost reboot is now a wardrobe staple of both fashion editors and celebs alike. Everyone from Holly Willoughby to Kate Middleton has been snapped in the brand’s dresses. This season? We’ve got our eye on both the Summer Dress, with its ’90s-inspired bias cut and pretty floral print, and the statement-making collar of the Jolie.
Thanks to the magic of the internet, here at Who What Wear, we have unique insights into the shopping habits of our readers, so it only seemed right that we dedicate one category to the style that you lovely lot can't get enough of this year. The puff sleeve has emerged as the clear winner for 2020, and Lyst has seen a 43% search increase over the last month. As mentioned in the introduction, one particular puff-sleeve H&M dress has outperformed previous months' best sellers on our site by 72%. While the trend has a clear throw-on-and-go appeal, we also have a sneaking suspicion that there's something about the puff sleeve's romanticism and escapist appeal that has drawn us to it: It's very Alice in Wonderland meets Little House on the Prairie.
If all this talk of checks, florals and super-size silhouettes has you running for the door, then rest easy because cool monochrome will always have a place in the fashion hall of fame. White dresses, in particular, have been quietly making their presence felt as the mercury starts to rise, and in fact, white is one of the most-searched-for dress colours this year, as Lyst has seen searches rise 62% month-on-month. Not to pledge its allegiance to just one brand, it seems as though the LWD (little white dress) has imposed its puritanical power in the collections of everyone from Off-White and Miu Miu to Chloé and Stella McCartney. What we’re trying to say is this is not one-size-fits-all, so go forth and find your own white dress moment this summer.
If I were to tell you that body-con dresses were having a comeback this year, you might feel a tad terrified (same), but perhaps if I prefixed that phrase with the word knitted, then the outlook might seem a little less intimidating. According to Lyst, year-on-year searches for body-con dresses are up by 35%, but specifically in relation to ribbed and long styles. Harking back to the languorous ensembles of the '90s—think Rachel, Monica and Phoebe from Friends—the knitted dress brings an altogether more sophisticated twist to the body-hugging silhouettes of the mid-noughties. The other key point of difference is that 2020's iterations are far from the bulky styles that dominate the winter months, and instead this year, they come in lighter fabrics and strappy fits. Jacquemus played a key role in launching the success of the knit dress in A/W 18, with a long-sleeved number that perfectly toed the line between chic and seductive. For S/S 20, the trend can be seen in Albus Lumen’s collared maxis, COS’s sleeveless midis and Joseph’s graphic iterations.