The Dress Heard Round the World

January 15, 2014

Edward Norton was just one in a throng of A-listers who arrived at the May Company Wilshire Building in Los Angeles last Friday, the scene of a party and exhibition celebrating the 40th birthday of Diane von Furstenberg’s emblematic wrap dress.

But his first memories of the slinky wrap colored his formative years. “I thought it was sexy,” Mr. Norton said. He felt the same about its maker. “She’s been my older woman crush for as long as I can remember.”

Other gawk-worthy luminaries snaking down the red carpet included Raquel Welch, Jeff Bezos of, Molly Sims, Jessica Stam, Anna Wintour and Gwyneth Paltrow, some dispensing mots like Tic Tacs as they vamped for the cameras.

“She’s an incredible voice for the fashion industry,” the model-slash-actress-slash-sometime designer Erin Wasson gushed of her idol.

Ms. von Furstenberg may be that and more. But for the sentimentalists in the crowd, her wrap dress, which helped define the zeitgeist of the ’70s, uncorked a geyser of associations.

Allison Williams of “Girls” wore her very first wrap, a gift from her mom, in ninth grade. “It made me feel feminine and grown up,” said Ms. Williams, who accessorized her dress in Connecticut blue-blood style with Jack Rogers sandals.

The fashion pop star André Leon Talley conflated the debut of the wrap with his first heady impressions of Ms. von Furstenberg herself. He caught sight of her in the early ’70s, making an entrance at Le Jardin, a chicly intimate predecessor to Studio 54. “She walked in with Yves Saint Laurent, Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise, this great entourage that was dressed to the nines,” Mr. Talley said. “But she wore that little wrap dress and she was no one but herself.”

On this night, Ms. von Furstenberg was a strikingly theatrical version of herself, in a black-and-saffron wrap gown with kimono sleeves that trailed to the floor.

The fashion retrospective, on view through April 1, took up several cavernous rooms, some hung with DVF portraits by Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz and others, that made the most of the designer’s Mount Rushmore cheekbones. A staged replica of Studio 54, that long-ago DVF haunt, was set up near the rear, complete with sparkly disco balls, zanily-patterned banquettes and Bee Gees songs.

The show’s real highlight, though, was a central exhibition space filled with wrap variations, short and floor-length, casual and formal, deftly arranged in marching-band formation. There were animal and python prints, Andy Warhol-inspired florals, signature chain-link geometrics and, for those with longer memories, the green-and-white wrap that Ms. von Furstenberg modeled on the 1976 Newsweek cover that heralded her arrival as a household brand.

The exhibition’s evocative title, “Journey of a Dress,” seemed apt, reflecting a personal journey that, as Ms. von Furstenberg tells it, unfolded in chapters.

“I call my first period the American dream,” she said. “I was the young indie who created something out of nothing. That dress paid my bills.”