If you are at all familiar with vintage clothing, you probably recognize the nostalgic, bohemian designs of Gunne Sax, a dress company straight out of 1960s San Francisco.
I grew up playing dress-up in my mom’s Gunne Sax wedding dress. And then, when it was my turn to get married, our female wedding guests were excited to see my bridesmaids and I walk down the aisle in our own vintage Gunnes. There is something about the romantic gowns that makes us nostalgic for a time of calico, cotton, and lace.
Elle Bailey and Carol Miller founded the Gunne Sax company in the Bay Area in 1967 – the year of San Francisco’s Summer of Love.
Both women were educated in fashion design. They met while volunteering at the local high school and, as luck would have it, they hit it off and immediately began sketching dress designs on napkins over lunch.
Don’t all genius endeavors begin as notes on napkins?
They came up with the brand name Gunne Sax, a mish-mash of the words “sexy gunny sack.” Just in case you aren’t familiar with the old-fashioned terminology, a gunny sack is a bag made of burlap and is often used as a potato sack. Burlap or jute just happens to be one of the materials used as trim on many of the early Gunne Sax gowns.
In 1968, after marketing their wares to all the Bay Area boutiques, the women got a big break. A buyer from the famed San Francisco department store I. Magnin called with a large phone order. Thus Gunne Sax began to gain the distribution it needed to become one of the iconic clothing lines of the San Francisco counterculture.
In early 1969 Elle Bailey bought out Carol Miller’s partnership and became sole owner of the dress company. After finalizing the deal, Mrs. Bailey was in need of an infusion of some money into the business…
Enter Jessica McClintock.
Jessica McClintock arrived in San Francisco with her son in 1969. She had just left the East Coast following a divorce from her husband.
Though a school teacher by trade, McClintock had learned business sense from her mother and the craft of sewing from her grandmother. When she met Elle Bailey of Gunne Sax, she signed on as a business partner.
The two women didn’t see eye to eye on design decisions and in 1969, Jessica McClintock purchased the other half of Gunne Sax from Elle Bailey, becoming the sole owner of the dress company.
I brought to [Gunne Sax] my own concept of clothing based on romance – nostalgia created by a mixture of prints, ribbons, laces, muslins and braids.” (Jessica McClintock)
Early Jessica McClintock designs focused on the use of cotton muslin fabric and jute trim. Her designs were reminiscent of Renaissance style with some San Francisco hippie flare. You can tell the early dresses made in 1969 because they feature the collectible black label. If you are interested in seeing the progression of labels through the years, I suggest checking out the Vintage Fashion Guild.
As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the Gunne Sax aesthetic evolved as well. Jessica McClintock and her Gunne Sax brand were the first to design dresses that celebrated the prairie chic style now synonymous with 1970s fashion.
Hippies didn’t talk about the clothes they wore; they were beyond that. That’s why Gunne Sax was so important in those days. It was a stamp for them. They used to wear them in the parks, getting married—the long calico dresses, barefoot and all. (Jessica McClintock)
The romantic, airy floral fabrics and lace were reminiscent of a modern Little House on the Prairie and the high empire waistlines of the ball gowns in Pride and Prejudice. The gowns seemed straight from a fairytale. And thus, an entire generation of women found themselves enamored with Jessica McClintock’s vision.
It is the dresses from the late 1960s through the 70s that have captured the romantic hearts of today’s generation of bohemian gals. Women today have brought the Gunne Sax gown back to weddings, music festivals, parks, and proms.
Because of their popularity, certain sizes, styles, and fabrics are getting harder and harder to find. Luckily Gunne Sax dresses have been treasured and preserved and it’s likely that more will surface.
The best Gunne-hunting experience I’ve had was at an estate sale of a Gunne Sax collector in Berkeley, CA. I must have been the only Gunne-obsessed gal in line, because when I got into the house, I just piled dress, after dress, after $25 dress onto my arms and shoulders, until I was trembling under the weight of cotton and lace! This is where I found my wedding dress and my rare hooded dress. Many of the black label dresses even had their store hang tags still attached!
Anyone who collects Gunnes knows you don’t happen across a goldmine like this every day. Today my favorite place to find dream Gunne Sax gowns is from the collectors and sellers in the Facebook group Gunne Sax Addicts. The gals in this group also have excellent advice for laundering and altering vintage dresses.
For more information on the early days of the Gunne Sax company, be sure to read the post by Lizzie Bramlett over at The Vintage Traveler where she gets the story of the early Gunne Sax brand directly from Elle Bailey’s sons.
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