Sophie Gimbel’s black cocktail dress is studded with sequins and rhinestones, which gives the impression that the dress is covered in stars.  It reflects the influence of Christian Dior’s “New Look” silhouette and the emergence of cocktail attire in the 1950s.

About the Look

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his 1953 Sophie of Saks Fifth Avenue cocktail dress features three-quarter length sleeves and a full skirt with a zipper front (Fig. 1). The skirt reaches the calves and is fitted at the waist, emphasizing the hourglass figure so popular at the time. The neckline comes down in a deep v-neck and both the top and skirt are studded with bands of sequins and rhinestones, which gives the impression that the dress is covered in stars. The dress is made of silk faille, which was a popular fabric for evening attire.

Sophie Gimbel, or Sophie of Saks Fifth Avenue, was born in 1989 in America and died on November 28, 1981. She was an American Fashion designer for Saks Fifth Avenue and took over their salon, Salon Moderne, in 1929. Sophie Gimbel designed high end, ready-to-wear clothes that followed the popular idea of Dior’s “New Look” style that took off in the postwar era, but emphasized a softer and more subtle approach to fashion in America that had long been influenced by Europe (Yanetta). She worked on emphasizing women’s figures while remaining conservative and classy, stating that she would never show “the bosom, the stomach or the fanny,” because clothes that do so “belong in the beachwear department” (Nemy). Sophie Gimbel’s ready-to-wear clothes were sold exclusively at Saks Fifth Avenue and were worn by people such as Marlene Dietrich, Rose Kennedy, and Lady Bird Johnson (FIT).

Comparable designs by Sophie Gimbel in the FIT Special Collections archives show dresses with similar styles, sketched by John Paul Bozett, such as the deep v-neck and long sleeves in Fig. 3. Other cocktail dresses were sleeveless, yet still distinguishable from evening wear by their shorter hemlines (Fig. 4) or high necklines (Fig. 5). Another example of Gimbel’s work is a dress with a black cashmere v-neck top with sleeves and a full skirt (Fig. 2), which shows her appreciation for the simple but elegant silhouette.

Cocktail Dress

Fig. 1 - Sophie Gimbel (American, 1898-1981). Cocktail Dress, October, 1953. Black silk faille, rhinestones, star-shaped spangles; dimensions unknown. New York: The Museum at FIT, 75.69.3. Source: Wag Magazine

Saks Fifth Avenue fashion publicity records

Fig. 2 - Sophie Gimbel (American, 1898-1981). Saks Fifth Avenue fashion publicity records, 1954-1974. Cashmere, black net; dimensions unknown. New York: The New School Libraries and Archives, KA.0018. Source: The New School Libraries and Archives

Sophie of Saks Fifth Avenue sketch collection

Fig. 3 - John Paul Bozett. Sophie of Saks Fifth Avenue sketch collection, 1940-1969. New York: Gladys Marcus Library Special Collections and College Archives, US.NNFIT.SC.40. Source: FIT Special Collections

Sophie of Saks Fifth Avenue sketch collection

Fig. 4 - John Paul Bozett. Sophie of Saks Fifth Avenue sketch collection, 1940-1969. New York: Gladys Marcus Library Special Collections and College Archives, US.NNFIT.SC.40. Source: FIT Special Collections

Sophie of Saks Fifth Avenue sketch collection

Fig. 5 - John Paul Bozett. Sophie of Saks Fifth Avenue sketch collection, 1940-1969. New York: Gladys Marcus Library Special Collections and College Archives, US.NNFIT.SC.40. Source: FIT Special Collections

Sophie Gimbel (American, 1898-1981). Cocktail dress, October 1953. Black silk faille, rhinestones, star-shaped spangles. New York: The Museum at FIT, 75.69.3. Source: Museum at FIT

About the context

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he cocktail dress was extremely popular during the 1950s with the rise of the cocktail party as an event in the postwar era. Although the idea of a black cocktail dress had existed since the 1920s (Black 149), the postwar era was the first time that the name “cocktail dress” really came into existence. This meant that many women added cocktail dresses to their wardrobes for appropriate attire to such an event (Black 143). Black was considered a suitable color for Fall and Winter styles, which is supported by the fact that this dress debuted in the October issue of Harper’s Bazaar in 1953 (Fig. 6). The spread in the magazine featuring this dress presents it alongside a design by Leslie Morris for Bergdorf Goodman, both studded with rhinestones to give off a starry look (Fig. 7 and 8). The Sophie Gimbel dress captures the elegant silhouette brought to popularity by Christian Dior’s “New Look” style of the late 40s and 50s. As fashion historian Elyssa Da Cruz notes: “Dior focused on ultra-feminine clothes and silhouettes, which was a change from the war years. He was the first to name the early evening frock a ‘cocktail’ dress” (Black 199).

Cocktail attire in the 1950s was heavily dictated by societal regulations on what was and wasn’t appropriate. The Sophie Gimbel dress itself features three-quarter-length (Fig. 9) sleeves and skirt length, “which were perfectly appropriate for cocktail wear” (Palmer 240). The ideal cocktail dress was considered less elaborate than an evening gown, though still more formal than day wear. Da Cruz comments that “though cocktail attire featured the longer sleeves, modest necklines and sparse ornamentation of daytime clothing, it became distinguished by executions in evening silk failles or satins, rather than wool crepes or gabardines” (Black 189).

Sophie of Saks Fifth Avenue in Harper’s Bazaar

Fig. 6 - Sophie Gimbel (American, 1898-1981). Sophie of Saks Fifth Avenue in Harper’s Bazaar, vol. 87, is. 2903, no. 10 (October 1953): 189. Source: FIT Special Collections

Cocktail Dress

Fig. 7 - Sophie Gimbel (American, 1898-1981). Cocktail Dress, October 1953. Black silk faille, rhinestones, star-shaped spangles; dimensions unknown. New York: Museum at FIT, 75.69.3. Gift of Sophie Gimbel. Source: Museum at FIT

Evening dress in Harper's Bazaar

Fig. 8 - Leslie Morris (American). Evening dress in Harper's Bazaar, vol. 87, is. 2903, no. 10 (October 1953): 188. Blue velvet, jet encrusted, satin ribbon; dimensions unknown. Source: FIT Special Collections

Sophie of Saks Fifth Avenue in Harper’s Bazaar

Fig. 9 - Sophie of Saks Fifth Avenue (American, 1898-1981). Sophie of Saks Fifth Avenue in Harper’s Bazaar, vol. 87, is. 2903, no. 10 (October 1953): 189. Source: FIT Special Collections

Its Afterlife

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ivenchy created a similar look in his Spring 1955 collection with a black cocktail dress made of silk organdy embroidered with black and white polka dots (Fig. 10). FIT’s “Sophie of Saks Fifth Avenue” cocktail dress was featured in the “Physical Forces” section in FIT’s “Force of Nature exhibit from May 30-November 18, 2017 (Fig. 11). The curators wrote of the dress:

“The rhinestones and spangles on this dress imitate a shimmering galaxy of stars. During the 1950s, the allure of space travel captured the imaginations of many nations, while technological advancements facilitated new and better ways to examine the universe. In spite of Cold War tensions, a belief that science could shape the world for the better prevailed.”

The idea of the “Little Black Dress” for cocktail parties, embellished with sequins and other decorations is a look that continues to be popular today. The flared skirt and v-neck create a flattering silhouette on the wearer, and even couture runway shows today maintain their support of this iconic look; for example Zuhair Murad’s Fall 2015 show included a sequined dress with a neckline and silhouette remniscent of Sophie Gimbel’s 1953 design (Fig. 12). 

Cocktail dress

Fig. 10 - Hubert de Givenchy (French, 1927-). Cocktail dress, Spring 1955. Black silk organdy embroidered with black and white polka dots; dimensions unknown. Source: Couture & Commerce p. 11

Fig. 11 - Installation view, "Force of Nature". . New York: The Museum at FIT. Source: The Museum at FIT

Dress

Fig. 12 - Zuhair Murad (Lebanese, 1971- present). Dress, Fall 2015. Zuhair Murad Couture. Photographed by Yannis Vlamos, modeled by Marta Ortiz. Source: En Vogue Blog

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