Collecting 1970s maxi dresses

With their fluid, flattering designs, the vintage gowns are proving catnip for collectors, says Avril Groom

Ali MacGraw wearing a Mr Dino maxi in US Vogue, 1970
Ali MacGraw wearing a Mr Dino maxi in US Vogue, 1970 | Image: Bert Stern/Conde Nast via Getty Images

A few minutes with vintage-fashion dealer Virginia Bates illuminates the enduring appeal of the 1970s maxi dress. “Fashion had such a sense of energy and freedom back then – it was more laidback than the so-called Swinging Sixties,” says the former actress, who opened her renowned west London boutique in the ’70s and today runs a by-appointment business. “The longer, fluid lines were flattering and feminine. We used to pick up wonderfully decorated 1920s and ’30s items from Kensington Market. It was all very ad hoc, but today luxury brands are mixing things up in a similar way.” 

At the fore of this trend are Alessandro Michele at Gucci and Hedi Slimane at Celine. Their bright, embellished versions of the ’70s “mash-up” take inspiration from increasingly sought-after originals by iconic designers such as Ossie Clark. Known for his outrageous shows, Clark collaborated with his print-designer wife Celia Birtwell on flattering dresses that now fetch upwards of £1,000. Bates has a silk-chiffon “Christmas tree” style (£1,800), named for its layered shape that would, she says, “appeal anywhere” – yet it’s also quintessentially British. 

From left: Yves Saint Laurent dress worn by Romy Schneider, sold for €2,080 by Artcurial in 2019. Jean Varon maxi, £895, from Liberty. Jean Varon dress, £2,075, from William Vintage
From left: Yves Saint Laurent dress worn by Romy Schneider, sold for €2,080 by Artcurial in 2019. Jean Varon maxi, £895, from Liberty. Jean Varon dress, £2,075, from William Vintage

“London’s designers understood boho‑luxe better than anyone. They made it look effortless and opulent but not overdressed,” says Cameron Silver, founder of Los Angeles store Decades, whose stock includes a silk Zandra Rhodes dress ($1,900) in a vivid turquoise print, as well as a beaded one-shoulder number ($3,200) by Halston. “Dresses by Clark, Rhodes, Thea Porter and John Bates are relatively rare.”

Porter is an insider favourite. The designer, whose clients included Talitha Getty and Bianca Jagger, is a trophy find for vintage experts and “collectors such as Kate Moss”, says Sophie Hersan, co-founder of online luxury resale emporium Vestiaire Collective, which has a pink Porter dress (£2,204) in a paisley design. Bates is also a Porter aficionado: “She was a total original who created kaftans and dresses from patchworks of floaty and embroidered ‘found’ fabrics.” For Stelios Hawa, head of Liberty’s designer vintage department, Porter’s work is “among the most evocative of the era”. Another name to look out for, he says, is Jean Varon – “the label by designer John Bates, which people are just discovering now” – by whom Liberty has a high-waisted example (£895) in a gloriously graphic print. 

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But it’s not all niche names; the leading French houses espoused the maxi style with panache. Dior, for example, had a ’70s moment under Marc Bohan. “He wasn’t the most innovative of designers,” says Pénélope Blanckaert, head of fashion at auction house Artcurial, “but his dresses were very pretty.” A floral butterfly-sleeved chiffon design recently sold for €850. But for many, Yves Saint Laurent remains the ne plus ultra of ’70s design, especially his opulent, folkloric Russian and Marrakech haute couture collections – now vanishingly rare and held mainly in museums. “But ready-to-wear Rive Gauche also creates great interest,” says Blanckaert, pinpointing a 1972 checked silk-chiffon dress worn by Romy Schneider and sold on Artcurial for €2,080 – over a €600-€900 estimate. 

In the US, similar reverence is reserved for Halston, who saw the ’70s through a sleek, sophisticated lens. “Kate Moss wore his red one-shouldered design to Cannes in 2016. It looked so contemporary,” says Marie Blanchet, CEO of London’s William Vintage, which has a Jean Varon (£2,075) in a metallic stripe, as well as an Ossie Clark crêpe dress (£1,775) in plain sea-green. The famed Halston silhouette was recently sold in bright red (for $925) by Toronto-based vintage dealer Cherie Balch, whose Shrimpton Couture selection features Bill Blass (Lurex silk-chiffon dress, $975), Thea Porter and YSL, as well as lesser-known names (a backless, floral silk-chiffon style, $1,200, by US designer Scott Barrie). “There’s a certain ease to wearing a long dress,” says Balch. “Throw it on, add shoes and accessories, and you’re ready.” 

From left: Thea Porter maxi, £2,204, from Vestiaire Collective. Ossie Clark maxi, £1,775, from William Vintage
From left: Thea Porter maxi, £2,204, from Vestiaire Collective. Ossie Clark maxi, £1,775, from William Vintage

Fashion stylist Nini Nguyen has several such maxi dresses, many bought from Shrimpton Couture for their red-carpet allure. “My favourite is from Valentino,” she says. “The top is deep red and the skirt is a bright emerald green with crystals – it’s the ideal thing to wear to an art gala, with jade jewellery and platform boots.” 

Nguyen is coming to these designs with fresh eyes, but former construction-industry executive Ruth Lowe, one of the UK’s most prolific collectors of 1960s and ’70s fashion, “loved them originally”, she says. “Designers used all these lovely ‘off’ colours no one had worn before.” Her 2,000-strong collection includes maxi styles by Jean Varon and Jean Muir. 

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“Maxi dresses suit all ages,” says Milan-based JJ Martin, the designer/founder of online new and vintage-clothing retailer La DoubleJ. “In the ’70s they were handmade to a standard rarely seen now. Not having a designer label is no bar to top quality,” she adds, highlighting a Lily Pulitzer tulip print dress (€420) and an unsigned ruffle-cuff design (€320). Balch agrees: “The name may not be well-known but you can see at a glance that it is well made. This is the bottom line with vintage: whoever a piece is by, the quality is only replicable if you shop at the very high end.”

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