How Calvin Klein’s Slip Dresses Came to Define 90s Fashion
“Cher, get in here.”
“What’s up, daddy?”
“What the hell is that?”
Besides its obvious comedic elements, the above exchange from Clueless where protagonist Cher Horowitz has the validity of her chosen attire questioned by her father codifies two synonymous elements: American designer Calvin Klein and filmy slip dresses. The movie’s writers were wise to include this Klein reference as there has perhaps never been a more prominent creator of a style once exclusively considered underwear. Under the current direction of Raf Simons, Calvin Klein’s label remains formidable, but the 90s saw it shoot into the stratosphere with a heady mix of brilliant design, groundbreaking advertising and perfect timing. The buttoned-up structure of the 80s melted away with Klein’s languid minimalism ready to replace it. He had no shortage of hits yet the slip dress remains the most enduring and, at the time, the most pervasive. It became a staple of everyone from supermodels like Kate Moss to everyday women around the world attracted to its unfussy attitude, something which came to define the decade.
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Of course, Calvin Klein didn’t invent slip dresses. They have a long, quite fascinating history as undergarments stretching back centuries. Their modern progenitors are most likely the slinky bias-cut dresses of the 1920s that fully embraced the body sans extraneous padding or stiff construction. The term ‘slip dress’ wasn’t even used until 1934 when it appeared in Vogue referencing a sheer dress that went over a slip. Klein wasn’t even the only person experimenting with the form in the 90s—perpetually 20s-inspired John Galliano provided healthy competition in this regard–but Klein’s interpretation proved especially influential.
Calvin Klein founded his label in 1968 with a focus on outerwear and produced his first runway show two years later in 1970. From the beginning, Klein was an ardent minimalist who stripped every one of his designs back to the essence. In a 2017 interview with WWD upon the publication of an eponymous coffee table book, Klein said, “ [As far as leading Nineties minimalism] I never thought about [it]. Those are the labels people put on me. I do think of myself as someone who loves purity and simplicity, and I’ve been called minimalist and that’s great, I appreciate that.” Klein became increasingly minimalist over time peaking in the 90s when the rest of fashion seemed to catch up to his poetic restraint. If one overarching philosophy could sum up high fashion at the end of the 20th century, minimalism would be it.
With his Spring 1994 collection, Klein took pieces typically thought of as lingerie and eliminated the delicate lace trims (though he did later experiment with embellishment) so their spare silk shapes stood out as daywear—not something intended for bed. They were worn alone and paired with oversized cardigans, finely ribbed sweaters and softly tailored jackets. However styled, their remarkable sense of movement is enchanting. There was a certain grunge element to the collection, partially due to the loosely pinned back hair and thick-soled leather shoes, that may have taken cues from Marc Jacobs’ infamous Perry Ellis show a little over a year prior. However, the results were distinctly Klein with clean lines complemented by a gray, black, beige, off-white and pale pink palette.
In a way, the slip dresses Klein showed were the perfect embodiment of his aesthetic: they lacked finicky closures, possessed an American sportswear level of comfort despite their luxurious make, layered beautifully, and had an indescribably sensuous quality. It isn’t difficult to imagine that these traits were what attracted so many. It became a 90s uniform of sorts, a base upon which you could place nearly anything. Its ease was perhaps the height of modernism as it relates to fashion, and the ability to copy it at more accessible prices points certainly didn’t hurt its spread.
Unlike other luminaries who produced spectacular work during the 90s, Klein’s brand of minimalism, and minimalism in general, is far easier to copy line for line and produce at low costs. There’s no way such a thing would have been possible with the radically deconstructionist wares of Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons or the operatic grandeur of John Galliano’s gowns for Christian Dior or the severe, impeccable tailoring of Alexander McQueen for both his namesake label and Givenchy. The techniques needed to construct them or facsimiles at high street prices did not—and largely still do not—exist. Not to mention, the fabrics used could never match up to those of designer-level pieces. When intelligently designed, even the simplest clothes have innovative fabrication and technical brilliance that copies can never capture, but, on a surface level, they can be passable, which is often enough to have far-reaching consequences. In this case, it seems likely that Klein’s slip dresses, with the perfect balance of formal and casual, comfort and class, became a trend that manufacturers everywhere could get behind.
But unlike some of history’s other sartorial trends, Klein’s slip dress moment doesn’t make one grimace. The quality of the images, makeup and settings belie the date, but something about the dresses still feels current. As Madame Grès, arguably fashion’s original minimalist, once said in a 1976 interview, “Simplicity and elegance are never boring: you can never get enough of them, and one single detail manages to suggest that touch of gaiety only you have!” Perhaps that’s the secret.