Tower dressing! How the Chrysler building inspired 2020’s first big fashion trend

The Chrysler Building in New York was not originally a great success. In 1928, the automobile magnate Walter P Chrysler set out to create the greatest skyscraper on Earth, but the record for the world’s tallest building was held for only 11 months before it was overshadowed by the Empire State Building. The terraced crown that is the Chrysler’s most distinctive feature – a seven-storey decorative shell without floors or glazed windows – was dismissed by critics as a gimmick.

But, in 2020, the Chrysler is the height of fashion. It has become an architectural icon, a beloved art deco treasure, as symbolic of Manhattan as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris. And the signature silhouette – the elegant, wedding-cake tiers, graphic but graceful, tapering skyward – is the most on-trend shape. The tiered dress is to fashion today what the hourglass was during the New Look craze of 1947 or what the bellbottom was to 1971. The first trend of the new decade is here – and it is 2os skyscraper chic.

A tiered dress from Molly Goddard’s spring/summer 2020 collection
A tiered dress from Molly Goddard’s spring/summer 2020 collection. Photograph: Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

You may be wearing this dress already without realising how cutting edge you are. In its wearable, everyday form, it has a simple neckline and skims the body to the waist, where it connects to a waist-to-hip tier with a little more fabric, so that the silhouette gets looser and a little wider. A little lower, there is another horizontal seam and a lower tier with yet more fabric, and so on, to the hem. The fabric is soft and unstructured, so that the shape falls with a natural gravity, rather than a grand, stiff kind of volume.

The Chrysler silhouette crosses all fashion divides. It was a key look for fashion’s biggest labels in their first collections of this decade. There was a monochrome gown at Chanel, with white buttons on a white bodice and a floor-length skirt of three tiers of black organza. At Dior, a polka-dot sheer dress was embroidered at the horizontal seams dividing the four stacked layers of the skirt, to emphasise the tiered construction.

Tiers were everywhere, from the avant garde catwalk of Simone Rocha – where overlapping layers of black lace were worn with a crochet harness and a latex skullcap – to Óscar de la Renta, the favourite label of New York’s socialites, where a floral, floor-length gown in tiers of cream and caramel, with matching belt and bag, was garden-party perfect.

What is remarkable about the popularity of the Chrysler shape is that this dress does not make you look thin. It does not emphasise the waist, nor does it slim your silhouette. It simply does not kowtow to the age-old tyranny of thinness in fashion. This makes it supremely relaxing to wear – you can breathe out, literally – which lends it a laid-back kind of mood-music when you wear it. They say that flattery will get you everywhere, but the triumph of the tiered dress shows that, in fashion, this is no longer the case. “Flattering” is no longer the be-all and end-all of compliments, from a style point of view. There is a modern take on dressing up that is more about glamour and less about sex appeal.

This is a modern take on dressing up that is more about glamour and less about sex appeal

The first noteable on-screen appearance of a tiered dress in modern pop culture came in Killing Eve, in the form of the pink Molly Goddard frock worn by Villanelle. It was an unforgettable fashion moment precisely because the aesthetic impact was so unsettling. Traditionally, sugar-pink is the most feminine of colours, an international aesthetic code for conventional prettiness. But splayed on the sofa in her giant triangular dress, Villanelle had all the cockiness of a man-spreader on a tube carriage. The natural successor to Villanelle was Gemma Chan at last year’s Oscars, with one hand in the pocket – pocket! – of her Valentino gown, which was constructed in 12 horizontal layers of hot-pink parachute silk. Ariana Grande, returning to the Grammys last month after skipping 2019’s ceremony, pulled a similar tiered-gown power move in the vast pyramid of a Giambattista Valli gown in a sombre shade of slate grey.

A lot of you – and I mean a lot of you – have worn this dress already, because it was the basic shape of the £40 Zara polka-dot dress that stole summer 2019. But where that dress had just two layers to its tiered skirt, the 2020 model usually has three or more, which is what gives it that skyscraper-esque, Chrysler-shaped ambition. (Zara has a graphic white mini version, for £29.99, which takes aim at your holiday wardrobe.)

Part of Valentino’s spring/summer 2020 collection
Part of Valentino’s spring/summer 2020 collection. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The lesson of the Zara dress, as the high street learned, is that – mindful not to overshop – we are increasingly drawn to what buyers call the three-day-a-week dress. This is a dress that works with flats and heels, for work and weekends, and lasts a day-to-night wear because it is comfy and doesn’t crease too much. It is a dress you can rely on, a dress you pack for every trip because it gets you out of wardrobe trouble. At its most sober and office-appropriate, this can be a shirt dress – Toast has an elegant collared dress in drapey viscose crepe, with softly gathered tiers and a scattered floral print, for £170.

In its most fashionable form, the Chrysler dress cross-pollinates with Americana in its other vogueish form. The prairie dress is where Scandi chic meets pop culture’s yeehaw trend, in which the cowboy is making a postmodern comeback. (Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road wasn’t the longest-running No 1 in US chart history for nothing.)

The prairie version of a Chrysler dress features some kind of Little House on the Prairie detailing – a Laura Ashley-esque fabric, a puffed sleeve, smocking – as well as the modish, Fab-lolly-tiered silhouette. Copenhagen-chic label Ganni and London-based Rixo, both of which have been well ahead of the Chrysler curve for several seasons, have western-inspired styles. Rixo’s Becky dress, £335, has a high frilled neckline and puff sleeves. Ganni’s seersucker check shirt-dress has a raised waistband, and four tiers to its skirt, for £225.

As I say, these brands have been rocking this look for a while, so you can find old-season bargains – has a Ganni tiered frock in a pretty moon print for £110.

On the high street, & Other Stories – always a first-rate destination for a wearable dress – has a Chrysler-chic tiered dress with a smocked bodice and full sleeves for £95.

The Chrysler shape is all about modern urban elegance, and the principle works just as well for clothes as for architecture. This is the second roaring 20s and fashion is looking up.