Part of the Versace spring/summer 1994 couture collection, designed by Gianni Versace, the dress is a long black sheath evening gown made of black silk jersey with a rayon lining. A body-hugging style, with a sweetheart neckline plunging down below the sternum, the dress is held up with double straps. There are two thigh-high slits on both sides, although the left is shorter; this asymmetry is repeated in slits on either side of the back of the dress. The body is further revealed through a cutout section on the right side of the torso. The dress is decorated overall with gold- and silver-tone metal safety pins adorned with the Versace “Medusa” logo; these vary in size, and some are studded with rhinestones. In places, the safety pins seem to hold the pieces of the dress together, especially where the front and back of the dress meet above the torso opening, as well the back slits. Placed in series along the pieces of the dress fabric, they appear to create sutures that close the carefully tailored openings in an apparently improvised, but rhythmic and controlled manner. While the original runway version of the gown was designed to show off as much skin as possible, other versions of the dress created for Versace’s couture clients feature discreet mesh at the side and back, a higher neckline, and have fewer and less prominent safety-pin details.
The dress is a sensationalistic update of the ubiquitous “little black dress,” a staple of evening wear, which relies on contrast for its effect. Drama is added to an otherwise severe columnar silhouette by slashing the fabric in strategic places to draw attention to the body underneath. The design also has elements of historicism. The thin straps with metallic accents and the daring décolletage recall the 1883–1884 John Singer Sargent portrait of Madame X (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Gianni Versace updated the shock factor of this sexualized high-fashion object with the addition of the safety-pin details, referring to their subcultural appropriation as jewelry by British punks in the 1970s and 1980s. Although the slim sheath and black color essential to the gown’s design were in keeping with the minimalist aesthetic of the early 1990s, the designer updated these with his characteristically body-conscious tailoring and club references.
The collection of which this gown was a part premiered in Milan in October 1993. The runway show featured feminine looks given an edge with the addition of punk details, such as large safety pins even on lingerie-inspired gowns. The designs played with contrasts: flowing fabrics such as silk satins and chiffons were paired with tailored jerseys and leather, and lace details were contrasted with slashed and studded leather. Bold, solid colors vied with tie-dye and polka-dot prints, while the hemlines ranged from barely-there miniskirts to floor-length gowns.
A series of similar dresses featured at the finale, modeled by supermodels such as Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell. These black sheath dresses all featured high-slit skirts and peekaboo cuts at the side and chest. Notably, all were embellished all over with gold and silver kilt pins, as were most items in the season’s collection. This particular dress was worn by Helena Christensen and was the penultimate look to be presented on the runway.
Punk details had been noted as a trend of the early 1990s, and indeed, Versace’s spring/summer 1994 collection had similar elements to his fall/winter 1992 “Miss S&M” show. Both featured aggressive cutaway designs punctuated by metallic “Medusa” details on otherwise conservative silhouettes, conspicuously reveling in eroticism in an era suspicious of sexuality due to the AIDS epidemic so much in the public attention. The voyeuristic slits and opulent materials of both collections explain Versace’s appeal to the music and Hollywood stars who wore his designs.
This particular dress came to public attention through its association with celebrity. In May 1994, it was worn by Elizabeth (Liz) Hurley, then a little-known model who was dating the British actor Hugh Grant, to the premiere of Grant’s film, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Grant had been offered Versace designs to wear for the opening, and Hurley requested a gown to borrow to wear herself. Her appearance at the premiere largely eclipsed Grant’s significant star power and gained both Hurley and Versace significant name recognition. A more modest copy in stretch jersey was soon available for sale to the general public by the specialty label, Bernshaw.
The gown, which remains in the Gianni Versace archive, would go on to achieve iconic status. It was displayed as part of Versace retrospectives at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1997–1998, as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2002–2003. Most recently, it was displayed again at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to demonstrate high fashion’s appropriation of subculture style in the 2013 “Punk: Chaos to Couture” exhibition. However, as it is not a museum piece, the dress was also lent to pop musician Lady Gaga in 2012, who wore it to meet the current head of the Versace design house, Gianni’s sister Donatella, in Milan; the singer was promoting her song “Edge of Glory” and wore archive pieces from Versace in the music video. To accommodate the length of the dress, the petite Lady Gaga wore exceptionally tall platform boots.
Hurley’s name and the Versace dress are now permanently associated in pop culture. Hurley’s look was voted the greatest red-carpet dress of all time in a 2008 poll by British department store chain, Debenhams. Her look inspired a generation of stars to gain public attention by baring their bodies in risqué evening wear. It has also given rise to a new popularity for aspirational dressing, where regular women aspire to wear copies of celebrity styles.
For example, in 2007, London’s high-end department store Harrods launched a campaign called “Timeless Luxury.” An exhibition on “the little black dress” was promoted as featuring a copy of the dress worn by Liz Hurley, but displayed was actually a different design worn by Christy Turlington on the couture show runway; copies of this dress retailed at £10,690.
In September 2014, designer Anthony Vaccarello revived the design for the Versace ready-to-wear brand, Versus, for spring/summer 2015. Two versions were shown, both halter minidresses with strategic slashes, although the fall 2013 collection by J. W. Anderson also referenced the gown in dresses with a variety of cutout details held together by safety pins, as well as a long-sleeve and maxi version. These dresses were priced at less than £500, and marketed at women too young to remember the original gown, yet aware of its lasting fame.
Find in Library . Punk: Chaos to Couture . New York : Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013.
Find in Library . ““Liz Hurley’s Safety Pin Frock Changed How We Get Dressed (and That Includes Miley’s Nipple Pasties …)”.” The Telegraph , 9 September 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11084446/Liz-Hurleys-safety-pin-frock-changed-how-we-get-dressed-and-that-includes-Mileys-nipple-pasties….html .
Find in Library . ““Liz Hurley ‘Safety Pin’ Dress Voted the Greatest Dress”.” The Telegraph , 9 October 2008. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/3167702/Liz-Hurley-safety-pin-dress-voted-the-greatest-dress.html .
Find in Library . Versace . New York : Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997.
Find in Library . The Art and Craft of Gianni Versace . London : V&A Publishing, 2002.