100 Essentials: The Convertible Dress

{This series is based on my latest book, 100 Essentials: Simple Kitchen + Capsule Wardrobe + Minimalist Home. In it, you’ll find the full list of my personal possessions, with detailed explanations and 100 color photos—including my 35-item kitchen, 35-item wardrobe, and more. I hope this series will start some interesting discussions on what you can’t live without!}

How many formal affairs do you attend each year? For me, the answer is one or two—fundraisers and the occasional marriage are all I need worry about.

Therefore, I don’t need a closet full of fancy clothes, and I’ve been determined for some time now to reduce my formalwear to One.

For many years, I relied on the classic little black dress. It served its purpose just fine, but you know what? Easy and minimalist as it was, I got bored. Part of the fun of a formal affair is dressing up, and the LBD just wasn’t doing it for me anymore.

Lazy shopper that I am, I certainly had no intention to go out looking for something new. But one day, on the internet, something caught my eye: the convertible dress. One garment that can be worn 20+ ways? I was intrigued.

Basically, it consists of a stretchy bodice with two very long straps. With some strategic twisting, turning, and wrapping, you can make a variety of different dress styles: halter, strapless, sleeveless, one shoulder, off-the-shoulder, and many more. It’s like a modern version of a Grecian tunic. You can even fashion it into a more casual, daytime dress.

What’s more, the fabric is super-stretchy; it doesn’t need tailoring, and pretty much fits the same even if you gain or lose a few pounds.

It’s also basic enough to not require any special accessories. It works well with my black strappy heels, black clutch, and a piece of jewelry or two. (I remember, long ago, having special shoes and bags for particular pieces of formalwear—never again!)

I’ve only worn mine a few times so far, but I have to admit, it’s put the fun back into dressing up. I can devise something that fits the occasion and my mood, and it’s nice to not look exactly the same when attending annual events. If you wanted, you could even change your look over the course of an evening—useful, perhaps, if you’re hitting the town after that awards dinner, or if someone else shows up in the same dress (!).

It’s available in both short and long versions. And though I love the elegance of a floor-sweeping gown, knee-length is much more practical for my lifestyle. It would be wonderful if some designer came up with a convertible length as well… :)

The most difficult decision, then, was choosing a color. The minimalist in me said black, the girly-girly wanted fuchsia, the dreamer wanted blue. I ultimately opted for gray, a color I find versatile, seasonless, and sophisticated.

{And because some of you will want to know where I got it, here’s the link.}

I feel like I’ve broken all kinds of fashion (and minimalist) rules by abandoning the LBD—but sometimes you just have to live a little, right?

I’d love to know about your favorite formalwear; please tell me about your fanciest frocks (and why you chose them) in the Comments. And men, don’t be shy—what’s your clothing strategy for special occasions?

30 comments to 100 Essentials: The Convertible Dress

  • Carolyn

    Wow, the price is right, too!

  • Sara

    Good question. I generally attend no formal events ever; well, almost never, but when I have to I wear one of my black skirts with one of two or three nicer tops that I have. You’ve written about uniforms at one time and my uniform is and has been for years now my black knee-length skirt. I have four of the same skirt. (I used to have five, but I’ve already worn out one and another is also getting there, so it’s restricted to home wear.):)

    Your dress looks beautiful! And the gray seems like a good color and I also like the price. I don’ think there’s anything wrong with wanting a bit of change when it comes to clothes and this seems like a great way to get more than one dress.

  • Liz

    I’m the same – probably need a formal type dress once or twice a year and a fancy but not too fancy party dress 3 or so times a year. I have two strategies. I either rent a designer gown (here are heaps of businesses popping up) or I use Facebook buy/sell/swap sites. There are a few designers that have large followings on Facebook and bss groups with tens of thousands of members. I have a party coming up in April and just the other day swapped my current go-to dress for a new one from the same designer via a Facebook group. Great because I already know my size etc and that the style suits me and I also know that once I’ve worn it a few times I can pop it back on the group and swap again.

  • Nikki

    I just ordered the dress! I’m so excited as I have a graduation and a wedding coming up!

  • Gaby

    Heh, heh. You sold me on this dress, too bad they don’t ship to Australia! :)

    • Kat

      Search Etsy – there are lots of sellers there that will ship to Australia. I bought my bridesmaid dresses from Orchidiea Botique. My sister gave the dress back to be and now I have a perfect full length formal gown and have worn it several times.

      I agree that the knee length would be more versatile.

  • Oh no we don’t think you have broken the LBD rule at all! (Check out our blog littleblackdomicile.com otherwise known as LBD! Our philosophy is that there is a LBD that is just perfect for everyone….in our homes and wardrobes. Today’s post is even about how our wardrobes influence our decor. How timely you should post this! Go for the gray dress, or the blue dress, or the white dress whichever makes you feel like you are looking your best. We are sure there are a few different combos of shoes and accessories that could change this minimalist idea up even more. Bravo!-Laurel

  • Betsy

    This dress is great! Thank you so much, and it’s made in the USA. I’ve been wearing the same black skirt with a ruffle on the bottom for 20 years. It still is in great shape (not many formal occasions) and it’s very comfortable. I switch out a top depending on what I have at the time. I have a small wardrobe but for some reason I just can’t part with this skirt.

  • Marilyn Hayes

    I gave up on dresses/skirts 30 years ago, and stockings, heels, etc. At my age I attend more memorial services/funerals than anything else, and an occasional wedding. So my uniform is any pair of (Lands End) elastic-waist 100% cotton knit black pants (my uniform for 15 years), and the same black Coldwater Creek top/jacket. Black Birkenstocks or sandals, with black sox, complete my outfit, and maybe some small hoop earrings and/or a colorful scarf. Nobody notices; nobody cares. I hang with a pretty casual crowd in Boulder, Colorado. Maybe I couldn’t get by with this in the eastern U.S. – I’ve heard people are more formal, but it works fine here. Whew.

  • red pen

    i feel the opposite way–i don’t mind at all wearing the same thing over and over again, so long as it’s flattering and distinctive/the opposite of an LBD. my go-to dress for *everybody’s* wedding (i’m in my early 30s, so this is several times a year, easily) is a magenta sheer-stripe organza number–i know it looks great on me and i love the color, so i don’t mind repeating it ad infinitum.

    • NicolaB

      I do the same- I have a dress for going to weddings…I think we went to 8 last year…a quiet year this year with just three! I love the dress and don’t care that I have worn it to several events!

  • Mike

    Like you, my sig other and I attend very few formal events each year, which means that I’ve pared down the number of suits that I own. I have one three-piece suit that I use for all of these occasions. I bought it off the rack a thrift store near me about 5 years ago for about 20 dollars; bought new, it would have been several hundred dollars. It’s a gray pinstriped suit that pairs well with black shoes and most of the shirts and ties in my closet. I can make it a two-piece suit for less-formal affairs or change the shirt/tie for different events, so that I don’t get bored with one look.

    If you go shopping for a two- or three-piece suit at thrift stores, and you find one that you like, make sure that the jacket fits you. Ideally, all of the pieces would fit, but if you find one that needs tailoring, it’s less expensive to have pants fitted vs. a vest and/or a coat. Luckily, my suit fit me off the rack, so no alterations were needed.

  • Claire

    Have you come across http://www.seamly.co? They do a convertible pantsuit which is similar to the dress. Lovely floaty wide legs and then two long wide pieces of fabric allowing you to design the top in many different way (and yes there is a zip allowing you to use the loo without having to undo it all). They also do what they call a Versalette (currently being re-designed) but that can be a (short) dress, skirt, top, tunic, scarf and even a bag! I have both and love them. The ladies clothing brand I work for in the UK do a range of reversible items – not quite as versatile as the others but still quite useful. There are sweaters, skirts, dress and even a coat!

  • Amanda

    I love the convertible dresses! Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home seems to find limitless ways to style it, too. Do you still have your wedding dress? I remember you writing that you would wear that to weddings as well.

  • My friend swears by renting. You can wear something different to each event, get fancier dresses than you could normally afford, and it’s a fraction of the cost of owning (especially if you don’t like to wear the same dress over and over). She always gets compliments in her rental dresses. Me, I have a LBD equivalent and I wear simple dresses to work, so in a pinch a work dress can be styled for an event.

  • Joanna

    Is it easy to change into the different styles? Sometimes it doesn’t stay well when items have many options. It is adorable. I love the idea. Just worder if logistically the twists stay where they should.

    • Katie

      Yes, the twists do stay. The issue I had (I had this as a bridesmaid’s dress) was that the fabric for the twists was too long and lots of the styles end up having bulky twists of fabric around your waist in order not to have five feet of fabric left over at the end. The part above the skirt is like 6 ft long! I ended up donating mine as I never felt comfortable in it due to the bulky nature of the top and how hard it was to find a style that didn’t require a strapless bra.

      • Rayanne

        The dress looks too “complicated” to be minimalist. I don’t see how an off-the-rack dress in that style could fit most people without some alterations, and unless you sew and can make alterations yourself, you’ve just defeated what I assume is the cheap cost of the dress.

  • Great idea!! And such a good point that we don’t need a million dresses hanging in our closet for the few formal events that come up here and there.

    Erica
    http://www.awastenotkindoflife.com

  • Karen T.

    I have a sleeveless calf-length LBD that I use for all formal occasions. I change it up by wearing a lacy crocheted cardigan, and silk scarf, a rhinestone belt, or a beaded bolero top. I add strappy black sandals and some nice earrings and I’m good to go. I don’t look the same at every occasion (maybe half a dozen per year), and I don’t get bored.

    • Rayanne

      I wear sheaths and LBDs daily. They work for business meetings, dates, doing the marketing and running errands, and evenings like the theater and symphony on weekends. It’s mostly the shoes that dress it up or down, and I guess jewelry if that’s your thing. I wore a dark gray silk dupioni dress all day today (one of my days off) and wore it on my walk to the market wearing a denim jacket and clogs, so it didn’t look dressy at all. I’ve worn cotton sheath dresses out on dates in the evenings and they look dressy with a light silk jacket or a pashmina. And you’re right, it’s not boring.

      I want to do the wearing the same dress for a year thing that some people are doing!

  • Susan M

    Love the dress but missing the real life minimalist posts on Monday. Will they be coming back soon?

  • Dawn

    I totally bought this dress. In RED! Thanks for the tip.

  • Mary in Maryland

    How many formal events do I attend per year? Zero. And since I’m old, nobody cares if I wear my twenty-year-old navy dress. My husband asks me to dance no matter what I’m wearing.

  • Hi Francine,
    Will you be listing 100 Essentials on Netgalley?
    It looks like an inspiring read!

  • Barbara

    The front of the dresses look great, but I always find the back lacking when it comes to styling one of these. They should sell a matching fabric/color “tube top” to put with it so that the back isn’t “wonky” looking. I don’t want to feel like I can fall out at a moment’s notice. That isn’t a comfortable event. It looks beautiful, but I think the tube top would solve my dilemma. (I hope somebody takes me up on it!) I think I am more of a “throw over my head” or “zip and go” kind of girl. I think a sheath dress that I can accessorize differently is probably more for me….

  • Jenn

    Thanks for featuring this dress! I bought the convertible dress for a wedding recently and I can’t say enough good things about it! I’m working on becoming more of a minimalist and figured the convertible style would enable me to wear the dress multiple times. What I did not anticipate was how fun it was to try the seemingly endless ways to tie the straps! I had so much fun trying it out and it was super comfy!

  • Tina

    I wear a dress at my children’s weddings. Whatever the bride says. Mostly I wear black slacks and a nice top and black cardigan. And pearls. If it is really formal, I will have to get a black or gray dress because after 20+ years, my old one looks a little ratty. A lot of the fund raisers we go to are breakfasts or luncheons. As long as I am not out of place, it’s fine.

  • Rayanne

    Knit fabrics just look cheap, sorry. They also don’t hold up as well as natural fibers like wool, linen, cotton, and silk. I know knits have come a long way since the 1980s when we were all sewing with that really awful double knit, but most off-the-rack knit clothing is just not high quality, and it shows. I’ve made a few ponte and scuba knit dresses but they really don’t hold up quite like the linen and wool sheaths do, and nothing holds a candle to a natural fiber fabric like linen, silk, and wool with a nice silk or Bemberg lining. There is nothing like a lined or even an underlined garment to perfect fit, hang correctly, and protect your fabric, prolonging the life of the garment. I’d rather own one quality lined or underlined linen dress than 10 polyester dresses.

    I’m intrigued by these bloggers wearing the same dress every day for a year, maybe I’ll try something like that, or work my way up to it. I’m just more comfortable in natural fabrics and I wear dresses every day.

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