On the Friday before Labor Day Alexa Chung, the perennial “It” girl, Instagrammed a selfie wearing a floor-length, persimmon-colored dress of her own design with ruffles at the neck and a darted bodice. Her caption read: “A throwback Friday, if you will (to the 1800s).”
Silky and saloon ready, Ms. Chung’s ensemble seemed a fitting cap to a summer that has seen a resurgence of prairie chic. Over the past six months it is as if the Donner Party has set out to brave the wilds of DeKalb Avenue instead of Hastings Cutoff. Suddenly, “My Antonia” is everyone’s Antonia!
The prints are Laura Ashley-esque micro-florals, calicos and gingham, the necklines are high, sometimes there is a bib or apron, there is usually at least one ruffle.
Some women have embraced the straightforward prettiness of the trend, adding a wicker basket and clog sandals; others have paired them with Dr. Martens or Air Force Ones and a knowing scowl. It’s a whole new breed of Pioneer Woman. Call her the Urban Prairie Girl (U.P.G.?).
On a scorching day in late August, to the bafflement of my husband, I tried on a high-necked, mutton-sleeved, fitted frock actually called the Prairie in the comfort of our apartment’s central air-conditioning.
Across town, in a carriage house in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, a friend texted me a photo of herself wearing a dress by the same designer. Hers was two pieces: a ruffled pinafore in a pale blue calico over a Peter Pan-collared, bell-sleeve blouse in a contrasting floral, called the Apron.
Both garments sell for around $400 apiece and are designed by a woman who has come to be known by one name, Batsheva (her surname is Hay). The recent crush of Lower East Side Laura Ingalls Wilders is in large measure attributable to her and a selective but influential group of acolytes, who manage to make the dresses’ Amish dowdiness seem a provocative fashion choice.
It comes, said Ms. Hay, who herself pairs the dresses with combat boots, out of “conflicting forces.” There is, according to the designer, a genuine nostalgia for Laura Ashley, Gunne Sax and “Little House on the Prairie” that women over 30 can relate to, along with a sort of “re-appropriation and parody” of stereotypically feminine silhouettes and styles.
Ms. Hay added: “Some of the women who wear my clothes are just being pretty and simple, going to a Venice Beach brunch where they want to look feminine and relaxed. Others are being feminist and radical and wearing the dresses with hard-core boots and are going more Cindy Sherman, playing with the look.”
Many of Ms. Hay’s fans are 20- and 30-somethings in creative industries, who grew up virtually “dying of dysentery” while playing the Oregon Trail computer game.
They tend to be slender enough that their Mannerist necks are accentuated rather than squashed by a gingham pie-crust collar, with just the right number of Instagram followers — over 20,000 but under 100,000 — to signal that no one is paying them to tag a selfie with calico dress and matching bonnet, they really do just want to channel “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” albeit irreverently.
“I have a fondness for a puffy shoulder,” said Hailey Gates, 28, the host of Viceland’s “States of Undress” and a devoted wearer of Batsheva’s line, having learned about it from Ana Kras, a photographer and furniture designer. “I had an eBay alert set for ‘vintage moiré’ and then I saw she had this moiré dress in the color of really salty butter.”
But Ms. Gates associates Batsheva’s dresses less with an actual butter-churning milieu than with memories of a lost New York of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the last time prairie chic was in fashion here.
“Did you ever go to Lincoln Plaza Cinema?” she asked, referring to the shuttered West Side independent movie theater. “That’s how I think of Batsheva’s designs. They are the Lincoln Plaza Cinema of dresses.”
Some women’s associations with the style, however, are more obvious. “I’ve always been inspired by all things Western and frontier,” said Margaret Kleveland, one of two sisters who design Doen, a two-year-old fashion brand based in Los Angeles whose sepia-toned social media feed suggests a Sofia Coppola adaptation of “O Pioneers!”
The most recent ad campaign featured a flaxen-haired lass, sun filtering through the gathered yoke of her “Prairie Paisley” blouse as she feeds a baby lamb.
Lest you think this is all marketing: Hilary Walsh, the photographer who shot the campaign, raises chickens in her backyard in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Alyssa Miller, a model turned accessories designer (her line, naturally, is called Pilgrim) and one of Doen’s “muses,” keeps a 200-pound pig, Paul, and hens in the middle of Hollywood.
“On one of our shoots we were joking that it was like a remake of the movie ‘Bad Girls,’” said Katherine Kleveland, referring to a kitschy 1994 Western starring Drew Barrymore and Andie MacDowell (even at 60 perhaps the archetypical prairie girl and whose actress daughters were early Batsheva adopters) in tight-buttoned bodices and lace-trimmed sweetheart necklines.
The style has also surfaced on runways, suggesting the power of nostalgia for Americana at a moment of national turmoil. At Coach, Stuart Vevers fused American Gothic with American Goth Chick with ruffled hemlines sweeping a dirt runway. Erdem has long designed prairie looks, citing Laura Ashley as inspiration for its flutter-sleeved, floral pre-fall offerings (the cornflower blue taffeta worn by Evan Rachel Wood’s frontierswoman robot on “Westworld” would have looked right at home).
For the formerly minimalist Calvin Klein, Raf Simons constructed a sinister barn set and sheer, breast-exposing, bib-front gingham dresses paired with knit balaclavas and metallic leather gloves. And as part of a series of advertisements hashtagged #myCalvins, Mr. Simons placed those most American of superstars, the Kardashian-Jenner sisters, in an abandoned horse barn with the reality pioneers swathed in red-and-white patchwork quilts.
Though many would argue that prairie dressing in its modesty of cut and price is a corrective to the five-figure, stripper style of the Kardashian-Jenners’ Calabasas homestead, it could also be seen as a conscientious counterpoint to fast fashion and the current street wear trend (though a Doen new season alert is pounced upon with the same zeal reserved for a Supreme drop and sells out almost as quickly).
“There is a slowness to it, even the visual identity of it feels slow,” said Aurora James, the designer of Brother Vellies. “You’re not running in it. It’s the complete opposite of those gigantor Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga sneakers. There’s something very gentle and thoughtful about wearing dresses.”
The Big Apple … Orchard?
I visited Ms. James at her store in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, days after her return from a trip to England, where she posted a series of selfies wearing an ankle-length Batsheva floral Prairie dress in a golden wheat field. Brother Vellies makes the handwoven baskets and huaraches that many U.P.G.’s like to pair with their dresses, and created a capsule collection with Batsheva of her classic styles subverted in sheer iridescent (called the CD Rom) and latex.
On my walk down Franklin Street I passed a vintage boutique called Walk the West; Home of the Brave, a design store selling homemade earthenware ceramics; and a cafe, Littleneck Outpost, which sells cowboy-ready enamelware mugs and bowls and tea towels made from antique, homespun hemp linen.
Old-timey Brooklyn is nothing new — if only to never again see another Mason jar! — but it does provide a fitting backdrop for this particular trend. (Indeed, the breakfast eaten by the Ingalls family in “Little House”— cornmeal mush with prairie hen gravy — is eerily similar to a recent brunch special at Diner.)
“I feel like with all the new information about food safety and organic living, people are trying take that into their own hands,” Margaret Kleveland said. “I think we’re living in a time of fear and uncertainty and there’s a certain level of self-sufficiency that people are seeking.”
The sisters know families on the Central Coast of California, where they grew up, who are trying to live solely by trade and barter. The Klevelands’ father boasts that he lives off the grid at his ranch, “I think he knows that if everything goes crazy he has a well and a garden, a survivalist plan,” Katherine Kleveland said. “Homesteading brings about a different style of life and that’s really desirable right now.”
And even for (perhaps especially for) people who live in $9,000 per month lofts in TriBeCa, the survivalist aesthetic has appeal. The Best Made Company Axe Shop there promises customers “a lifeline in the wilderness, and at home it’s a magnificent window into that wilderness” and includes $400 styles with names like Lincoln, Fortitude and Smithereens.
Meanwhile — back to butter — Food52’s online shop seduces customers to “channel a day on the farm,” with its hand-crank Mason jar churner. “Churning butter, making your own almond milk, these are innate reactions of ‘how can I reclaim a safe space for myself,” Ms. James said. “With everything that’s going on in politics a lot of us got really burnt out. How do you maintain yourself and your spirit?”
This more modest style of dress has also coincided neatly with the Me Too movement. When Sarah Sophie Flicker, an activist, attended the reopening of Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” swathed in Batsheva ruffles, it felt like a deliberate feminist stance. Though others may feel that ascribes too much meaning on what is, at the end of the day, just a dress with frills.
Ms. Gates heard someone describe a Batsheva design “as the perfect dress for the Me Too movement, which I found truly asinine,” she said. “People still seem to believe that the amount of clothing a woman wears dictates whether she will be assaulted or not.”
And yet the last revival of this style was the late 1960s to the early ’70s, when feminism was also in high gear. Jessica McClintock started her Gunne Sax line (the name comes from gunny sacks: the Old West burlap carryalls) during the tumultuous Summer of Love; Laura Ashley and “Little House” soon followed.
But that era’s iteration was more Woodstock meets Willa Cather. There was a bohemian, hippie overtone that is absent this time around.
It also is arguably more inclusive. “Politically speaking, my head space right now, I’m trying to maintain my love for this country and for some reason that makes me gravitate toward wearing a certain style of prairie dress, which is interesting because that was never, as a woman of color, something I was included in,” said Ms. James, who described the discomfort she felt seeing the way a black model was styled in a prairie dress by Sandy Liang, a designer.
It felt jarring to her, Ms. James said: “I was like, ‘Wow that makes me feel like it’s in the South a long time ago. So there is a fine line there, being able to reclaim something versus not having that thing be positioned properly.”
For her part, Margaret Kleveland is looking at the “Little House” series with a new perspective. “Rereading it through a new lens I totally understood that it was problematic,” she said.
“What we take from it is more of a visual library,” said Katherine Kleveland, whose children are named Wilder, Shepard and Prairie.
“I mean … can I wear this in public? I look like I’m about to go milk a cow?” my friend texted with the photo of her up to here in the pinafore. Indeed, she looked like a waifish version of Kirsten Larson, the 1860s pioneer American Girl Doll. However, I also liked it. Was yes to both a possible answer?
When I sent back my own fitting photo she replied, “I can’t tell if I love it or if it’s your ‘Big Love’ Halloween costume,” followed by a still of Chloë Sevigny from the HBO show about Mormon fundamentalists, wearing almost the identical ensemble, down to the ruffled collar and oxen tongue pink color.
I know she’s right. But I’m definitely going to wear it again.