Alexandra Lange | Essays

My Marimekko Uniform

Last year's exhibition, D/R Headquarters, Harvard Square.

When you put on a Marimekko dress, you are dressed. You can add ballet flats, or clogs, or black tights and boots. You can add big jewelry: beads, bracelet or hoops (pick one). If it is cold, you can wear an entire union suit underneath. If it is hot, you can wear very little underneath. But whatever choice you make, you already look great.

Wearing Marimekko is like being a walking work of art. The stiff cotton canvas stands out from your body, and catches breezes like a sail. You are the brightest, boldest thing on the street. People aren't quite sure where to look. It can be hard to sit on the subway. You are an advertisement for some future mode of dress, a culture without jeans, a place where you zip yourself into a uniform and go.

I've been living in Marimekko-world since I started promoting my book Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes, written with Jane Thompson. D/R, as it was known, introduced Marimekko to the United States in 1959. The cover of our book is a recolored Marimekko fabric, marigold rather than red. To be absolutely on message I should have found a dress made of that. But instead, Marimekko collector Caroline Van Valkenburgh agreed to lend me a few of her over 300 dresses for the various book events. She organizes them by pattern (there's generally a 1:1, or 1:2 ratio of fabric to style), and of some she has multiples.

I don't ever want to give them back. (But I will, I promise.)

Selections from Caroline Van Valkenburgh's collection. ©Caroline Van Valkenburgh, 2010.

Marimekko dresses free you from all sorts of ordinary morning concerns. Too tight? Too loose? Slip? Belt? True, they aren't about thin, or sexy, or young. Sometimes I fear I might look like a Matryoshka doll. Tall women can look like line drawings, triangle of dress, with stick-like arms and legs emerging.

But all of these effects, choices, and non-choices are unbelievably freeing. When Marimekko came to America in 1959, the dresses freed women from girdles and garter belts and hose. Today they might free you from Spanx, or at least the contemplation thereof. Caroline has collected such fond recollections, and more about Marimekko's amazing crew (founder Armi Ratia, designers Annika Rimala, Vuokko Nurmesniemi, Maija Isola), in her in-progress documentary, It Wasn't Just A Dress.

©Caroline Van Valkenburgh, 2010.

During my first pregnancy, I had some of the easiest shopping trips of my life. Being pregnant freed me from many of the morning concerns I mention above. If it fit (plus a few inches to grown into) I bought it. If I wore a big pattern, people were too distracted to notice the bump. Wearing Marimekko feels the same way. See that green dress, lower right? That's one of my four. If I had 10, I'd wear one each workday, traveling down the closet rod and starting back over again.  I'd never have to worry about apppropriate, or flattering. I'd be dressed. And (almost) everyone who passed me on the street would smile.

©Caroline Van Valkenburgh, 2010.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [1]

What is it about Marimekko? I have a box of dresses saved from my D/R days in the sixties and seventies...I cannot bear to discard any piece of them. I even have the fabric belts that used to come with the dresses and the little fabric swatches that were originally sewn into the seams. I sure hope Caroline vanV gets her film out to share the spirit and joy! Meanwhile when I wear my oldies, like you Alexandra, I always get a smile! So nice to see a resurgence in interest in this classic design house....Btw that class 'fish scale' sleeveless dress is back in production for this fall's collection...the second from the last one that you show.
lu Lyndon

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