This is the dress that shocked the world. Known popularly as the “Derby Day Dress” or the “White Shift Dress” worn by Jean Shrimpton on Australian Derby Day, Oct 30th, 1965.
Shrimpton, AKA “The Shrimp” was the world’s first supermodel. She was contracted to judge racegoers fashions at the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival in 1965. For reference she was paid £2,000 for this contract at a time when the Beatles earned £1,500 for their Australian tour.
Shrimpton was on contract with DuPont who were promoting a new acrylic fabric. When it turned out that there was a shortage of the fabric for the dress design Jean told her dressmaker to just make it shorter, as nobody would notice.
She then turned up for Derby Day wearing no hat, no gloves and no stockings. The Australian Fashion community and the conservative bourgeois classes were outraged. The paparazzi had a field day. The incident sparked a media frenzy as Shrimpton was condemned and insulted by one side, while the British press rounded up to support her. They described her as a “Petunia in a garden of onions”.
For young Australian girls it signaled the arrival of the Swinging Sixties.
By today’s standards the dress seems almost conservative. It is hard now to understand the levels of outrage sparked by the wearing of a simple white shift dress.
But it reminds me of a time when Dublin Theatre goers rioted upon the utterance of Synge’s lines “It’s Pegeen I’m seeking only and what’d I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself maybe, from this place to the Eastern World?” His play, “The Playboy of the Western World” caused as much of a sensation in Ireland as Jean Shrimpton did in Australia.
A shift is an Irish term for an undergarment, a night dress or a slip. The line is a reference to a tale from Irish folklore when Cúchullainn was in such a rage following a battle that the king could not allow him to enter the palace. Instead he sent thirty maidens clad only in their shifts out onto the plain. The great warrior was shocked and embarrassed, he blushed, lowered his eyes to the ground, and the battle rage drained from him.
What is funny today is that the term “Shift” in Ireland now has distinct sexual connotations. When Irish boys and girls go nightclubbing they are hoping for a “shift”. Depending on circumstances a shift could mean anything from a kiss to full on sexual intercourse.