After seeing photos of my daughter’s friends and those of friends’ kids all gussied up for “Prom Season” these past few months, I was struck by the same thought more than once…Not only do they look far more mature and ‘put together’ than my friends and I ever did back in the 80’s, but there wasn’t a single Gunne Sax by Jessica McClintock dress in sight.
Yes, I know that styles and brands change as time passes and it is defunct as a brand now anyway…but for my friends and me (and from what I can tell from asking around…pretty much every girl who grew up in the Bay Area during the 70’s and 80’s), the brand – and the outlet in San Francisco, in particular – was an absolute right of passage. Outlet shopping by today’s definition is a completely different beast from what it once was. THIS kind involved driving to “the City” to an odd and old-looking neighborhood, wandering alleyways looking for the entrances, and then digging through racks and racks and piles and piles until metaphorical gold was stricken. It was usually a mother-daughter event but, if you were lucky, sometimes a friend and her mom would come along, too.
The Gunne Sax brand was founded in the late 1960’s but within a few years, Jessica McClintock (a former teacher from Cupertino) had bought the brand and made it her own. Something about the 1970’s called out for a prairie dress revival. Perhaps it was a ‘Little House on the Prairie’ thing… All I knew was that the designs of lace, delicate florals, and calico called to me from the pages of ‘Seventeen’ and ‘Young Miss’ magazines and I needed to have one … or 2. Any milestone event worthy of a new dress seemed like the perfect excuse to head to San Francisco to dig through giant bins looking for THE one. Looking back on it, the designs weren’t ALL prairie inspired… There were definite influences of the Victorian, bohemian, Renaissance, and innocent romance varieties. I would be willing to bet that had we taken an “all girls” picture at my 6th grade graduation (1983?), each and every one of us would be wearing some form of a Gunne Sax ensemble. It was the original ‘cottagecore’ before it was even an aesthetic concept.
The brand stayed strong throughout the late 80’s and 90’s, but the look shifted to more mainstream prom looks – abandoning the calico and florals for solids involving satin, tulle, and thicker embroidered lace (often in a contrasting color). I continued supporting the company with a few prom, sorority formal, and bridesmaid looks…as did many of my girlfriends. There were certain dresses that I think half my friends wore some version of at one point or another. By now, the San Francisco outlet had given way to the Jessica McClintock mall boutique and the brand had expanded to fragrances and housewares.
Just to make sure it wasn’t just me with these nostalgic memories, I threw the question out to friends online and was instantly greeted with photos (one with an entire front row at 8th grade graduation adorned in Gunne Sax) and enthusiastic comments.
- “Oh, I loved my Gunne Sax dresses! The outlet was so fun to go to. It was like heaven!!
- “YES I got my mom to take me on a day trip to all the outlets once a year, we always took a friend it was a blast!”
- “Friends and I were JUST talking about this at Bottle Rock!”
- “Oh how I loved my dresses!”
- “I don’t think I have them anymore, but yes, I did have one (or 2 or 3…)!!
- “Sixth grade graduation, 1979. I think I wore a Gunne Sax dress for my eighth grade graduation too!”
- “Absolutely…! 6th grade graduation, 1984. ***Had to*** get one or risk every ounce of popularity you earned in all of elementary school. Purchased at the Gunne Sax outlet in Los Angeles. A *huge* grungy store with hundreds of shoppers all attacking the selections just like when you toss a cigarette at the carp at the marina dock.”
- “I remember coveting them in Seventeen magazine when they were big around 85/86ish”
- “Every year. Every formal—Gunne Sax. It felt like such a shady warehouse didn’t it? ”
- “Winter formal 1987 – the biggest beast of a butt bow!”
- “I bought my senior prom dress at the Gunne Sax outlet in San Francisco!”
- “I still have mine. ”
- “Winter formal 1985 – simple black and my favorite. I think at one point there were 5 or 6 hanging in my closet – I loved them.”
For my daughter’s proms, we went to the usual mall department stores, but many times ended up ordering from some prom dress website. Beautiful dresses they loved and felt special in…but not as memorable of an acquiring experience. While we may have had the more adventurous spirit when it came to prom dress hunting, the girls today certainly have more of a flair for putting a look together. Maybe it’s their youth or my wistfulness, but I can’t help but think that the girls of today’s proms will look back one day and realize just how truly beautiful they are…classic styles (sans calico) and all.
The Gunne Sax brand’s look was unmistakable for the place and time in which it was on trend. For us Bay Area girls, though, half the fun was the journey to the weird little second story outlet down a narrow alleyway. And if you were really lucky…just maybe … you’d have time to explore the Esprit Outlet…but that’s another story for another day.