If you’re a lover of vintage fashion, especially 1970’s fashion, then you have probably heard of Gunne Sax dresses. Known for being romantic, often with medieval and renaissance inspired designs, Gunne Sax, a clothing label owned by Jessica McClintock, is commonly associated with the ‘prairie dresses’ trend.
For the uninitiated prairie dresses are a trend that was originally popular in the 1970’s (their original roots however are in rural 19th century America) and are often characterised as (usually) long, flowing dresses, often incorporating high necklines, lace and florals and often inspired historically by the Victorian and Edwardian periods of fashion. They recently were revived in 2017/2018 due to the popularity of modern designers like Batsheva and the Vampire’s Wife but there was glimmers of the popularity that was to come in the earlier 2000’s. For example prairie dresses are referenced in the Netflix show Girlboss (set around 2008), as Britt Robertson, acting as Nasty Gal‘s original owner Sophia Amorusa, discusses the trend (if I remember correctly she predicts that prairie dresses will be in, which ends up being a misstep).
Prairie dresses therefore are often associated with a more traditionally feminised way of dressing and because of their reference to the past, fairytale way of dressing. When I put on a prairie dress I often feel like I could be a character in a fairytale myself, perhaps it’s the flowing skirts that make me instantly think of a Austen heroine hiking through a field to visit their sick sister against the conventional norms of their time, whatever it is Gunne Sax dresses definitely fit that brief for me!
I’m not surprised that the dresses were popular as wedding dresses, and in fact Hillary Rodham famously wore a Gunne Sax dress when she married Bill Clinton. According to this article, she bought her dress from the local mall for $53 dollars the night before the wedding!
For many Gunne Sax, was at its peak during the 1970s, which was the height of the maxi, flowing dress trend and are often associated with the British equivalent, Laura Ashley (who I will cover in another post because I am a big fan!). Fans of the brand often talk of the rare black label dresses, which indicate that the dress is one of the very first of Jessica McClintock’s designs.
There have been numerous copies of Gunne Sax dresses however, as one issue with the dresses is their limited size range. The large sizes are often coveted because the maximum size the dresses go up to is 31 inches on the waist, which is about equivalent to about a UK size 12-14. You can find a handy reference to what size Gunne Sax dresses usually equate to here.
Dress: Vintage Gunne Sax (unfortunately with the inside tag mostly ripped off, as well as the size tag). I think the seller unfortunately mis-measured this, as after measuring it myself I got different measurements than the one listed but I luckily squeezed into it.
Bow: Henriette Von Grünberg (I emailed to check and Henriette sources her silks from left over silks from bigger brands in the season).
Nowadays, I have definitely noticed a revival for the dresses, especially on Instagram with hashtag #gunnesax, #gunnesaxdress and #gunnesaxobsessed getting a lot of love and there are whole vintage accounts dedicated to appreciating and selling the dresses, so I reached out to some of my favourites to see if they could give some more insight into why people love and collect ‘Gunnes’ as they’re often lovingly dubbed.
One of my favourite Gunne Sax Instagram accounts is @babygypsyeyes run by the lovely Samantha, who kindly answered some of my questions about all things Gunne Sax, revealing that she has a collection of over 100 dresses (I can only dream of such an achievement!) and that she wears Gunne Sax dresses almost everyday.
First, I asked what it is about Gunne Sax that draws her in – if you wear Gunne Sax almost every day there must be a reason!
“For me, Gunne Sax is an imperative piece in the prairie puzzle I have in my head. Let me explain, I grew up watching ‘Little House on the Prairie’ re-runs. I remember being quite young and really relating to that old frontier lifestyle of simpler times and full ruffled calico dresses. Decades later I am living my dream life on a 150 acre farm that is truly in the middle of nowhere. I named my son ‘Wilder’ (Laura Ingalls Wilder is the author of ‘Little House on the prairie). I wear Gunne Sax dresses nearly everyday and have put together a collection of over 100 dresses that I am very proud of. We are living a clean life that is far removed from anything urban! We grow vegetables, have animals and some days we don’t see a single vehicle go down our road. Gunne Sax feels like home and fits into this simple life we are living. A life that is innocent, safe and clean in a world that can be very frightening.”@babygypsyeyes
I was also keen to get into the ‘nitty-gritty’ of why Samantha thinks Gunne Sax dresses continue to appeal and she mentioned how even in the 1970s the dresses, “were expensive and desirable” and when you think about it $53 dollars in the 1970s would have been an expensive dress! She also highlighted how Gunne Sax dresses are on trend right now.
“They are high quality and expressive, the number of Gunne Sax designs is ASTOUNDING. This makes them fun to collect.”@babygypsyeyes
Samantha also revealed to me a group on Facebook, which I am definitely going to go join, called ‘Gunne Sax Addicts’ , which she describes as a, “community of lovely people who all have one thing in common, a love for the label”.
“Many people who encounter Gunne Sax quickly become passionate collectors. But what is it about these dresses? Many of the designs hearken to history, Renaissance & Medieval, Edwardian and Victorian, Hippies & Gypsies. Musicians make IG posts wearing these dresses, ‘The Love Witch’ wears several Gunne Sax during the course of the film. They are flattering to wear, romantic and feminine, they stir emotions and can help a gal fill any of a number of fantasy roles! And like I said, with so many designs there is likely a Gunne Sax for everyone out there!”@babygypsyeyes
Due to Gunne Sax’s increased popularity, I have heard talk that there is a greater need to check for authenticity, as a number of popular brands took inspiration from Gunne Sax dresses. Samantha recommends joining the Facebook group for checking authenticity, as well as making sure to look for the all-important Gunne Sax label. She also suggests looking on Pinterest before purchasing to check the dress exists: “Every dress I have tried to look up has been on Pinterest I swear”.
The one problem I personally have with recommending Gunne Sax is of course the sizing, as it’s not size friendly. Samantha definitely agreeds and said, “size seems to be the Gunne Sax downfall”. She suggested getting a vintage Gunne Sax sewing pattern and tweaking it to fit and also has heard mention of people willing to custom make Gunne Sax copies!
Lastly, I had to ask what her favourite ‘Gunnes’ are and she gave the perfect answer: “I love the folkloric, autumnal, rich colors. I want to feel like a 1970’s babe living her authentic prairie lifestyle….but I know that’s not how everyone feels.” Well, I’m not going to lie that’s how I want my autumn to be!
Another of my favourite Gunne Sax sellers has to be AuburnFoxVintage on Etsy, who has posted some truly stunning Gunnes in her shop. For her, Gunne Sax is all about the: “Eternal romance. Wearing a Gunne Sax dress is like slipping into a fantasy. It’s pure femininity!”. I definitely understand what she means, the materials and the way the dresses are constructed alone, definitely harks back to a different way of dressing.
“These women that buy Gunne Sax dresses want to escape into a romantic world and not look like anyone else. These dresses, skirts and blouses let us slip back into time, when things were simpler.”Karen at AuburnFoxVintage
She did have some good news about fakes though, as she personally has never come across any and some possible positive sizing news. She says Gunne Sax dresses can go up to a size 15 (I’d suspect this would be about a 33 inch waist so a 14, small 16 in UK sizes) , however, she has never personally got her hands on any size larger than a size 13. Karen wasn’t familiar with any designers that have reproduced the Gunne Sax style, but did mention that there are seamstresses who can make dresses in the Gunne Sax style for you. She also highlighted Modcloth, for having a great range of sizes and a “vintage inspired” section.
Be sure to check out Karen’s Etsy shop, AuburnFoxVintage , she has some of my all-time favourites Gunne Sax dresses in her shop as well as other gorgeous vintage dresses.
“Nothing makes me happier, than when these Gunne Goddesses receive their dresses and tell me how happy they are. Those dresses are fairytales, and we all want a happy ending.”Karen at AuburnFoxVintage
I’ve mentioned Worthless Vintage on my blog before and Cat Stones who runs the shop was nice enough to talk to me about all things Gunne Sax, as I noticed she was a fan and had sold a few herself!
“I love that they’re all unique but they’re also part of a brand, it makes for a community of brand lovers who all trade between each other and is so loving and appreciative! I personally love the whole 70s aesthetic, and I love maxi dresses as I’m the perfect height for them and they’re so flattering – they make me feel amazing!”Cat Stones, Worthless Vintage
For Cat, the appeal of Gunne is simply that they are characteristic of the 1970s in such a special way. The sheer range of the brand was something that also stood out (and I can certainly see why this is brought up again and again!), “there’s literally a Gunne for every taste – mine personally are the bold prints, the browns and the velvets”.
Cat also had some words of wisdom in regards to possible fakes, she stressed to: “always check the label”, and to always, “check for any possible alternations as this can deteriorate the value”. She did however mention: “If there’s no label it’s not always a bad sign, but before buying you should always ask the seller for a picture of the label (if there isn’t one posted).”
“Most Gunnes have a gold fleur de lis label and have a specific size tag, but some variations include the 1969 specific black label, rare white label/ heart label and early on J.G. Saxe label!”Cat Stones, Worthless Vintage
Cat gave some great recommendations for brands similar in style to Gunne Sax including Laura Ashley (I know that the 1980s designs definitely vary in size much more than Gunne Sax dresses, but the 1970s style tend to be on the smaller size), young Edwardian by Arpeja and Jody T.
“In vintage terms, it’s difficult as the sizes were so much smaller back then … In my experience plus size prairie vintage is mostly unbranded except Laura Ashley, you just have to be vigilant enough to have a dig!”Cat Stones, Worthless Vintage
So to conclude I am newly obsessed and yet to properly start my collection though I have started a Gunne Sax wishlist with all my dream dresses on (if this is you, I’d definitely recommend joining the Facebook group because all the interactions I have seen on there have been lovely)!
Although, I am definitely feeling all the autumnal coloured dresses at the moment because I can feel the weather start to turn towards autumn here; I also have a soft spot for any of the peach dresses and any with a peplum or hood! However, the beauty of Gunne Sax is that there is a style to suit every taste, I’ve even seen some fabulous Gothic ones!
I leave you with the comment that I am still new to this fabulous brand so if I have left anything out or written anything incorrectly, please let me know!
April (April is the Cruellest Month)