Some dresses you remember: Michelle Obama's inaugural gown, Coco Chanel's little black dress, Cher's Oscar getups. They make an impression on the collective culture beyond a fleeting fashion trend.
InStyle fashion director Hal Rubenstein counts down his favorites in a new book called "100 Unforgettable Dresses."
"Dresses are important for different reasons, but how they are unified is that they are not all simply about fashion. They hit us emotionally, psychologically or affect how we perceive beauty," he says.
A great dress also can jump-start a career, he says, and that's not just limited to fashion. Obama's white, one-shouldered gown for the inaugural balls made Jason Wu a household name overnight, but stars as diverse as Phyllis Diller and Elizabeth Hurley parlayed a splash of style into celebrity.
Hurley in Gianni Versace's safety-pin gown in 1994 for the premiere of "Four Weddings and a Funeral" is the first dress featured in the book, which is "not quite" random order, Rubenstein says. "The Versace safety-pin dress is the greatest example of the power of clothing. It made a woman famous overnight. Elizabeth Hurley was a pretty girl on Hugh Grant's arm who no one knew. The next day it was, 'Who's that girl?' "
Modern A-listers Sarah Jessica Parker and Cate Blanchett join late style icons Audrey Hepburn, Jacqueline Kennedy and Grace Kelly as women who made fashion part of their identity, he says. They show a deep understanding of fashion without ever seeming burdened by it, he describes.
Not all their outfits were showstoppers, but there rarely have been missteps, at least not for the signature look they carved for themselves.
Blanchett is one of the few people who could have pulled off Alexander McQueen's "Where Eagles Fly" gown, worn to the Oscars just weeks after the designer's suicide in 2010, Rubenstein says. The dramatic embellishment was a complement to her persona as someone who makes strong choices. On someone else, it might have overshadowed the person wearing it.
Kennedy figured out how to use clothing as a political tool. With her appearance in France at Versailles in 1961 in an ivory gown with floral beading all over the bodice by Hubert de Givenchy, she changed the world's perception of how a new generation of Americans might dress.
"She knew how to present a picture," Rubenstein says.
Diller, the comic -- an unconventional choice for the book, Rubenstein allows -- used her clothes as a warm-up act. There wasn't one dress that was necessarily her calling card, but she had a wardrobe full of glitzy, sometimes garish, tent dresses that she'd often wear with go-go boots, gloves and a long cigarette holder.
Rubenstein describes her look in the book as, "a violent cross between a Pucci mini and a Hawaiian muumuu attacked by a rhinestone stun gun and a flock of peacocks." Kooky? Yes. Yet it was a smart move, says Rubenstein, because the audience was smiling before she opened her mouth.
Every dress in the book tells a story, and that's why, at 35,000 words, it's more for reference than the coffee table, Rubenstein says.
"It's not called the '100 Most Beautiful Dresses' or '100 Most Fashionable Dresses.' Three-quarters of these have been stuck in my head my whole life. I didn't need to find the 100 dresses, 75 of them just showed up in just a couple of minutes after I had the idea," he says. "It's the culmination of how fashion has impacted the culture in my world. I'm somebody who grew up in a culture of red carpet, fashion, comedy, and the dresses come at you from all angles, not just the runway."
Without context, the conversation becomes about clothes, not fashion, he says. He wants to use his voice at the magazine and in this book to remind women that their wardrobes, and especially the dresses selected for special moments, really reflect time, place and personality.
Sometimes, though, you don't know how big a statement you're making if you don't take a moment or two to step away. "We're breeding and raising a generation of people who don't look back. I want people to know about the amazing things that happened before today."
Some of Rubenstein's favorite "behind-the-seams" stories:
Designer Jean Louis knew he was making a sparkly, sexy dress for Marilyn Monroe. He used 2,500 beads and sequins, a clear zipper and up to 20 layers of sheer frothy fabric.
What he didn't know when he delivered it after more than a month in the making is that she'd wear it to sing "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy in 1962 and that he'd help create one of the most enduring images of her as a shining star.
Princess Diana's "revenge" dress, worn in the summer of 1994, stole the thunder from a TV interview in which Prince Charles admitted marital infidelities. The next day, Diana's picture was splashed on front pages wearing an off-the-shoulder, short black dress by London boutique owner Christina Stambolian that she had stashed in her closet for three years, waiting for the right occasion.
Linda Christian's wedding dress in 1949 was considered a bridge between Hollywood and Italian fashion, Rubenstein says. Linda who? She was a contract player for MGM who was marrying big star Tyrone Power. The studio costume designers didn't find her name a big enough draw to make her a dress, so she went out on her own to the Rome atelier known as Sorelle Fontana. After the wedding, she introduced the designers to friends such as Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly.
McQueen's 2006 hologram gown, worn by Kate Moss, or a 3-D image of Moss, topped all the theatrical, elaborate creations that McQueen had dreamed up before, Rubenstein says. The feat of technology, showmanship and craftsmanship, not to mention the gown itself, featuring cascades of organza, created an enduring image of McQueen's genius.