What Vintage Gunne Sax Taught Me About Desire & the Power of Fantasy

love witch in pink vintage gunne sax
Vintage Gunne Sax as feminine power (and excess) in a scene from Ann Biller's The Love Witch/Oscilloscope, 2016

When I was a teenager in the late ’90s/early ’00s, there was nothing to me so beautiful, so ideal in fashion as a vintage 1970s Gunne Sax dress. In those years, I was lucky enough to acquire two, mostly through the help of a family friend’s excellent thrifting skills. In preparation for writing this piece, my mom mailed me those two dresses. I assumed my since-honed pop culture analysis skills would allow me some critical distance from the pieces. 

But as I unboxed them, I felt the same immense joy I remember as a kid. And I thought: these are the most stunningly gorgeous dresses I’ve ever seen, so why am I not wearing them 24/7? Further, they’re still in great condition, despite being perhaps carelessly used as dress-up for the Renaissance Faire or fantasy photoshoots. Now in my mid-thirties, my next thought was, “Could I pull off wearing one of these to my friend’s Fall 2022 wedding?”

Both are classic Gunne Sax style: floral prints trimmed in lace and ribbon, empire waists, shoelace ties at the bust. One however, represents the more medieval, Renaissance fantasy style, pastel blue and airy with sheer puffy sleeves and A-line skirt. The other is very much the prairie aesthetic, all burnt orange and dark blue, with thick straps and a dense, heavy skirt that reaches the floor – certainly a fall look. Of course, with the cottagecore trend at its height in a stressful, post 2020 world, I could wear these dresses to an event without them standing out much at all. I would never have dared as a teenager – to me, these were costumes, not fashion. 

So as I looked at these beautiful pieces that today, which I can also see on the runway and in my Instagram feed, I began to think back on the complex ways that my biography fits into larger social trends, and how that kind of introspection somewhat challenges common sense ideas about how nostalgia works in fashion revivals. While Cottagecore seems like a harkening to a simple past, where the separation of spheres reigned supreme, there is more than unfettered heteronormativity in the way it uses fashion as a form of play.  There is value, even political potential, in the role of fantasy within a cultural revival, something I realized as I reflected on my own relationship with my coveted Gunne Sax dresses.

Gunne Sax the Brand

I have a vivid (although possibly warped) memory of watching a VHS copy of the 1967 Camelot from my local childhood library. Included on this recording was an archived commercial from the 70s, advertising Camelot-inspired women’s wear.  This memory planted the idea that in the late 60s and 70s, Renaissance-style garb was in fashion and that everyday women wore it. As an adolescent, Gunne Sax became my idealized version of that desire to play dress up and be fashionable at the same time. 

The Gunne Sax brand was started in the 60s by San Francisco based designers Eleanor Bailey and Carol Miller. According to Bailey’s sons, the name was a more provocative version of gunny sack – or a burlap bag. Eventually Jessica McClintock became involved and bought the business outright in 1969. Famously, Hillary Clinton wore an ornate Victorian style white Gunne Sax dress to her wedding in 1975. My mom also swore to me she also wore one to her eldest brother’s wedding in the 70s; it turns out it wasn’t a Gunne Sax but something similar. It goes to show how ubiquitous these clothes were for a time.  

Gunne Sax shows up often in pop culture as the standard of the late 20th century flowy retro-inspired style. While it peaked in the 80s, it is very much associated with the flower child aesthetic of the 70s. (Case in point: on That 70s Show, which premiered in 1998, Mila Kunis’ character had a wardrobe that epitomized the romantic junior-centric brand.)  

While the Gunne Sax sub brand is gone, Jessica McClintock is still around, known still for its prom, wedding, and other special event dresses. After McClintock herself passed away earlier this year, articles acknowledged the continuing influence of the Gunne Sax aesthetic, pointing to contemporary Cottagecore trends. The “Our Story” section of the website states, quoting McClintock, “I believe Romance is beauty that touches the emotional part of our being.” This idealized romance wrapped up in fashion is central to the appeal of Gunne Sax. 

In researching the brand for this article, I’ve seen a lot of comments on how uncool Gunne Sax was for a long time: how outdated it was to wear over-adorned lace and heavily floral print dresses. But slowly, the look has become coveted yet again. Vogue archive editor Laird Borelli-Persson wrote in late 2016, “At the end of what was, for many, an annus horribilis, the escapist fantasy aspect of Gunne Sax dresses resonates and makes them look fresh, not frumpy. To choose one is to indulge in nostalgia, to find comfort in clichéd prettiness, and, perhaps, to imagine oneself at home on an idealized range.” This interpretation of the style as a kind of escapism has been central to both celebrations and critiques of Cottagecore’s return to the fashion world.  

Playing with the Fantasy of Fashion

I didn’t have a clear idea of what my own personal idea of fashion was as a teenager. I was interested in these vintage styles, but I never felt comfortable owning them as my own. When I was fifteen, I was diagnosed with leukemia and went through two and a half years of treatment. This drastically changed by body type, and, more significantly, by my own understanding of body image. I was standing out enough as a cancer patient – I certainly wasn’t going to add wild fashions to the mix. I didn’t feel comfortable establishing any personal sense of fashion that could be considered outside the norm. 

My two Gunne Sax dresses, then, became not only symbols of fantasy and play, but also an escape from the trauma of my high school years, spending most of my time in hospitals and at home. My potentially rebellious teenage years of wild fashion choices were completely derailed. But, in the safety of home, I could play around with the vintage clothing I found so beautiful and romantic, and for a moment feel that for myself. 

Playing allowed for escape from a traumatic moment in time. In writing this piece, I’ve wondered if I wasn’t going through extreme health issues, would I have been more audacious in my fashion choices throughout high school? But I did not think of Gunne Sax as appropriate fashion then – it was all about make believe. These were perfect dresses to wear to the Renaissance Faire. Perfect dresses to wear to the wooded areas around my neighborhood for a dreamy photoshoot. These dresses were catalysts for me exploring fantasy and desires. They weren’t practical pieces I could wear out; they were the epitome of impracticality, tools for diving further into the fantasy worlds I occupied. 

As I got older, got healthier, and gained more confidence both in my appearance and my sense of fashion, I no longer saw the Gunne Sax dresses as solely escapist or costume. They are those things but also wearable, and now, even fashionable pieces. 

Gender and Desire

Because of my own particular experience with Gunne Sax, I have been somewhat surprised by the ways in which these dresses, and Cottagecore in general, are discussed as a straightforward form of conservative nostalgia. For me, the style was never wholly about a longing for an idealized recent past but one that harkened to a more fantastical historical fiction. These dresses were about completely fabricated fantasy, the imaginative worlds of King Arthur, Renn Faires, and faeries. Of course, these fantasies are gendered, both as they fit into the romance genre (which largely assumes a female audience) and in the ways women are represented, often as overly sexualized and/or damsels in distress. 

This understanding of Gunne Sax as a complicated symbol of female fantasy and desire is well- represented in Anna Biller’s cult classic The Love Witch (2015). The film follows Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a young witch desperate for romantic love. The Love Witch also stands out for its 60s-inspired costumes, design, and even acting style. In an interview about the costuming, Biller explains:

 “The tea outfits were all vintage finds, but I had to do a lot of alterations to make them right. I looked for vintage Gunne Sax dresses specifically, wanting to give Elaine the look of those vintage Bradley dolls with the big eyes, and of the prom girls, bridesmaids, and Wild West gals you’d see in movies from the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The scene itself was inspired by an actual tea room I visited once where all the ladies wore hats trimmed with flowers, and pastel colors. I really saw Elaine in that setting, with all of her princess fantasies.”

In the first tea room scene, Elaine professes her desire for all-encompassing love; impeccably dressed in a pastel Victorian style Gunne Sax dress, she becomes the visual epitome of this fantastical ideal of romance.

Importantly, The Love Witch is not a celebration of the visual embodiment of feminine romantic fantasy, but a critique of its reality, as a heteronormative construction. Elaine never achieves her fantasy, killing her lover at the end of the film. She is unable to be truly fulfilled by the adoration of a man, though still dreaming that the perfect romance might be possible. 

There’s a sense of shame in that desire, and the common idea that leaning into the feminine – the frills and lace of a Gunne Sax dress – is somehow synonymous with outdated or conservative ideas about gender power dynamics. The Love Witch does an excellent job of grappling with visual princess fantasies and the real-world ramifications of those ideals. Despite Elaine’s misguided daydreams, she’s also incredibly dominant, making her princess dresses represent not solely her romantic fantasies but her own personal power. 

For teenaged me, the Gunne Sax dresses had to exist as fantasy – they leaned too heavily into this grey area. As Elaine holds a mock Renn Faire-inspired wedding with her lover, so, too, was my play with the Gunne Sax dresses. It was only pretend, because wearing them outside of spaces of pretend or play would be misrepresenting myself to the world.  It would also be drawing attention to a body in crisis. It’s a tricky thing, this fashion. I was always just as concerned with dressing too traditionally masculine as I was with being too traditionally feminine, as if there’s a correct answer. 

The Potential of Fantasy

In my youth, thrifting played a huge role in my playful relationship with fashion. It was romantic to imagine finding an orphaned dress, in beautiful condition, made new again by my fascination with the old. In an article about her fatigue with ’90s revival as a member of Generation X, Sara Tatyana Bernstein writes, “We wore vintage in the context of rising income disparity and a new globalized mass culture fueled by neoliberalism. There were piles of castoffs to play with, but what felt like limited options for moving forward.” As a teenager, I was playing, too, in a way that wasn’t wholly about fashion. Rather, my play allowed me to explore larger ideas about gender and sexuality, and to challenge certain boundaries in the safety of fantasy.

The thing is – fashion is fantasy, and fantasy is at its core about having fun, at least to some degree. In the last fifteen or so years, as I’ve gained back my health and a confidence in my appearance and sense of self, I’ve also gained a lot of confidence in finding a fashion sense of my own. Part of that has always been playing with elements of dress-up: buying a pair of Steve Madden vinyl cowboy boots to mix with a fitted sweater dress; a full A-line skirt that would fit in a scene from Mad Men; sunflower patterned crop-top to recall 90s fashions I was too young and too self-conscious to wear at the time. It’s living a fantasy in my head, using everyday fashion as costume to create a character. Even if it’s only the shoes or a jacket, I’m still playing dress-up in small ways. Whatever I wear, there is always a bit of make-believe sprinkled in. 

But for so long, fashion wasn’t about expression for me. This meant missing out on dressing exactly how I wanted for years. Now, I can both contend with fantasy and integrate my genuine love of a visual aesthetic. There’s a newfound sense of power in making choices about what I wear. 

Despite conversations about trends and how particular Cottagecore is to this contemporary moment, for me, Gunne Sax dresses are eternal. They allow me, and others, to switch from fashion to fantasy and back again. I will absolutely find an event to wear my burnt orange and blue Gunne Sax dress; I’m thrilled I finally have the opportunity to wear it out of my fantasies and into the real world. But it wouldn’t matter if it leaned too fantasy for this fashion moment – it’s still the most beautiful dress I’ve seen. 

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Megan Fariello is a Chicago-based writer with a background in cultural studies. She is currently a contributor with Cine-File, has featured work in Film Cred, and has a forthcoming article with Sounding Out!. Typically writing about sound in media, she is thrilled for the opportunity to explore fashion!