Dumb dresses, smart dresses
My sister, who was an assistant buyer for Jordan Marsh, now-defunct Boston department store, taught me about "dumb dresses" when I was maybe 17. That was a buyer's term for a dress that had an uncomplicated cut, and no distinguishing detail, whether in style or colour. It was easy to manufacture, often of wash-and-wear synthetics. Never chic, but they sold.
When I look at dresses from mass-market e-tailers (for example, Land's End and LL Bean), I often think, "dumb, dumb, dumb". The term is not as pejorative as it sounds, but "dumb" is the opposite of "smart". The copy for the Bean dress says "Dress it up, dress it down." You have to work a dumb dress; it needs accessories to lift it from dull genericism.
You are lucky if a dumb dress really fits. Typically, the tailoring that makes you look like there's a body in there are absent: no set-in sleeves (the dolman is the darling of dumb), finished cuffs, plackets, darts.
I've seen women look fetching in a dumb dresses zhuzhed by a great belt or a floaty scarf. but there is no rescue for a one in a dull colour—lifeless, dull navy, the green even a real-life olive would not bear, or body-dirt beige.
(Left and centre, Land's End; right, LL Bean.)
Dumb dresses absolutely have their place, such as travel, or a job where you need a sturdy dress you can throw in the wash. Ruth, a friend who taught primary school, filled one side of her closet with these; she could wear one without worrying when little hands dipped in fingerpaint brushed by. The dumb dress is the Dockers of womenswear.
There is dumb and there is simple. Balenciaga, a supreme couturier, cut a coat with one spiralling seam. In general, pricier clothes strive for simple; in cheaper lines, the corners cut with tailoring and finishing push them into dumb more often than not. I have spent some of my isolation reading pattern-making sites; the excellent The Cutting Class shows how meticulously-designed styles consider many more variables than dumb clothes do.)
Nobel-laureate smart—refined, detailed, soignée—delivers a crisp assertion rather than the polite murmur of the dumb dress. Several friends settle for nothing less that this level; I am often captivated, but they have little place in my daily life anymore. As I grow older, have I become dumber?
A smart dress can look subtle, quite "Oh, this little thing?" but in fact be a marvel of cut, or it can be showoff-smart—like a magnificent aria, you're stunned from the first note. You usually pay a steep price for that effect: this Akris shirtdress is clean and crisp, but look at the placed stripe, the webbing and leather belt, the impeccable placket... up to you whether it'ss is worth the over $3,000 price tag.
For a more real-world comparison, two other day dresses, with detail:
Left: Left: Lafayette Dohan linen/silk shirt dress. Note the matching on the pocket, the shade of blue, the Italian linen-silk fabric.
Right: Creamsicle-orange COS cotton dress with sleeve detail. The origami tuck at both top and bottom of the sleeve makes it way more than just a loose dress.
I have bought my share of dumb dresses because they were easy to find and practical. The best were even quietly attractive. But now, I want them smarter— if not at the Akris pinnacle, one with a little wit and better colours.
What's in between smart and dumb? A bright dress? Girftd? Certainly, above average.