At a pivotal moment in “Ex Machina,” the sci-fi fantasy drawing crowds to the multiplex, Ava, the movie’s saucer-eyed android, sallies into a fine spring day, incandescent in white lace.
Alicia Vikander, who plays the electronic temptress (and models a similar dress on the cover of this month’s W), is keenly aware of its evocative powers.
“It’s very pure,” she said in a recent interview. “I relate it to the idea of rebirth.”
That idea has apparently caught on with any number of fashion pacesetters, who, as the season advances, are casting aside the cacophonous patterns and hothouse colors of the recent past in favor of that confectioner’s dream: the little white dress, rendered virginal, if not downright doll-like, in lace and eyelet, dotted Swiss or layer upon layer of gossamer tulle.
In fact, there is plenty to suggest that the popularity of frothy skirts, tops and frocks, the garb of angels, flower girls and altar boys, has only now begun to crest.
“We see the white dress as trending,” said Red Godfrey, the vice president for fashion direction for Nordstrom, which is offering a panoply of white summer dresses, short and long, trim or fluffy as a peony.
“White is optimistic, Godfrey said. “You can spin it in a lot of different ways. It appeals to women looking for something airy and romantic.”
All of which plays in white’s favor and explains why, as she put it, “the white dress has definitely reached that point of critical mass.”
Jaclyn Jones, the senior womenswear editor with WGSN, a trend forecasting service in New York, noted that white lace, eyelet and other delicate fabrics, the fashion equivalent of spun sugar, have steadily climbed in popularity for the past four years.
“Today it’s the little white dress instead of black,” Jones said. She ascribed the current fascination in part to the resurgent romance with the late ’60s and ’70s and, as forcefully, to the ubiquitous images of white-frocked festivalgoers trailing a waft of bohemia.
“A white lace dress out in the desert: There’s a real appeal to that,” she said. “It definitely speaks to your inner Gypsy.”
The runways, too, have done their part. The color — or, as art scribes have put it, “the eloquent absence of color” — inspired a flotilla of designers, whose spring collections at times evoked a Victorian laundry.
Claire Wright Keller of Chloé introduced a wafty embroidered pinafore suspended from thin straps; at Valentino, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli offered a minidress embellished with a tree-of-life design; and Nicolas Ghesquiere of Louis Vuitton showed a high-neck lacelike dress, its maidenly look simultaneously suggesting a 19th-century daguerreotype and a temple virgin alighted from some faraway planet.
Tess Giberson’s spring runway was awash in creamy tints inspired by the immaculate artificiality of Palm Springs, Calif., in the 1960s.
“There was a sense of perfection that’s not perfection,” Giberson said of the fabled modernist resort, a place evoking a “perfect lifestyle in which you can actually keep things white.”
Marissa Webb, whose dalliance with white ran to a short flounced dress and sheer high-neck vest, and a button-front midcalf variation with a pointy hem, was influenced by its mood-shifting properties.
“White is a big blank canvas: You can make it whatever you want it to be,” Webb said. “You can style it up really sweet, or you can rock it. That’s why women, whether they’re fashion-forward or conservative, seem to be embracing it.”
Certainly they would be hard put to ignore it, their heads likely turned by a sea of runway look-alikes overtaking the windows and websites of Zara, Shopbop, ASOS and Revolve, to name but a handful of retailers billboarding the bleached look for spring. INstock, WGSN’s analytics arm, which surveyed 50 retailers across the country, reported that white dresses account for 11 percent of all dresses on the selling floor.
Nasty Gal offers no fewer than 40 variations on the little white dress on its popular site, among them a swingy funnel-sleeve shift by Mayaguez ($68), a lace-banded peasant smock from Margaritaville ($58) and a crocheted variation by Nightwalker ($119). White dresses appear in gridlike formation on the Nordstrom site, including a Diane von Furstenberg lace shift ($348), a Vince dress with a drawstring waist ($365) and a Rebecca Taylor jacquard mini ($179).
More rarefied versions of the pristine look — soutache-embroidered white tunics and a finely pleated cream silk dress — refreshed the spring windows of the Vera Wang shop in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.
A few blocks farther south, the Helmut Lang window showcased a minimalist riposte to white’s sweetness with an array of white looks, including a sleeveless placket-front chemise and a floaty crop top over a languid slip.
Frothy white dresses hark back to a hippie and post-hippie era when the Sheep Meadow in Central Park was virtually blanketed in white, and vintage shops like Harriet Love were the go-to source for filmy, if faded and yellowing, Edwardian-era underpinnings.
Now, as then, fans of the look in its myriad incarnations may respond as eagerly to white’s subtly subversive undertow as to its aura of freshness and candor.
As Webb said: “There’s a sharper, darker, more daring side to white. Some women like its boldness and edge.”
Historically, white’s manifold charms were countered, at least to some minds, by its unsavory character. Caroline Weber, a fashion historian and professor of French literature at Barnard College, has written about Marie Antoinette’s white muslin chemise dresses, known as gaulles, worn in the late 1770s.
“The gaulle,” she said in an interview, “essentially became the uniform of the Petit Trianon.”
At that time, a white dress was as likely to suggest insolence as innocence.
“As sweet and fresh as they may look to the modern eye, these dresses were considered exceedingly risqué,” Weber said. “Conservative courtiers in particular railed against the queen for running around in a nightgown or for dressing like a serving wench.”
The unsettling, even ghostly, qualities of white were underscored in “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” Peter Weir’s 1970s mystery film about a group of Australian schoolgirls, garbed in mists of pale voile, who vanished unaccountably during an outing in the wilds. This spring, the film was a reference point for several fashion features, including a portfolio in Vogue’s March issue, the editors turning their backs on the movie’s ominous themes, focusing instead on white-clad models, all smiles and high spirits, frolicking in a quaintly rustic setting.
White’s witchy side is not unfamiliar to devotees of Stevie Nicks, who favored white dresses trailing bell-shaped sleeves worthy of a medieval sorceress. Its uncanny qualities are bait to the latter-day followers of Jane Birkin, who created a stir when she appeared on the arm of Serge Gainsbourg in a form-fitting crocheted lace maxidress that plunged to her navel; or Nancy Spungen of the Sex Pistols, who sometimes abandoned her customary black to wear white lace with forbiddingly black calf-hugging boots.
Today, women who fancy that seditious look like adding incongruous touches, pairing dresses that could pass as christening frocks with black biker jackets, dark overskirts or menacingly spiky chokers. In his spring collection for Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci played on a related theme, accenting a goth-tinctured doily of a dress with thigh-high shiny black boots.
“People go back to white and revisit it endlessly,” said Godfrey of Nordstrom.
Whether the trend was spawned at Coachella or on the Paris catwalks is moot.
“Not every woman is sitting on the edge of her chair waiting to see what’s coming down the runway,” she said. “Sometimes you see your girlfriend looking super-cute in a fantastic white dress, and you think, ‘Can I have that?’”