Remembering Jessica McClintock and 80s Gunne Sax Prom Dresses

Decades before the likes of Vera Wang and the throngs of swoon-worthy dresses on Say Yes to the Dress, a teacher turned fashion icon from a small town in Maine dressed millions of us for proms and homecoming dances, and as brides and bridesmaids throughout the late 70s, 80s and early 90s.

I bet when I say her name, Jessica McClintock, your memory bank shoots right back to a picture of you in a vintage Gunne Sax dress that you likely adored as a teenager, or maybe even on your wedding day.

Jessica McClintock died on February 16, 2021

Sadly, McClintock, 90, passed away peacefully in her sleep on February 16, 2021, but memories of her work will forever live on in the dusty, yellowing photo albums of our youth, because for most of us, who now face buying formalwear in the, uhhh, mature section of the department store, her name and the affordable dresses she was known for were present at some of the biggest teen milestones of our lives.

You couldn’t flip through an issue of Seventeen magazine at any point in the 80s without a double widespread of her prom dresses showcased-the cotton candy pastels, lacy whites, and poofy taffeta and satin draped over the sinewy teen bodies of middle America, all promising giddy teen girls a prom night filled with a feeling of innocent romance that her dresses always evoked.

I fondly recall spending hours gazing dreamily at big-haired girls in Gunne Sax and being mesmerized by strapless crushed velvet, emerald green taffeta, and white boho romanticism all wrapped up in a big, giant bow.

McClintock settled in San Francisco and worked as a teacher after marrying for a second time, but when that marriage ended, her childhood dreams of designing dresses didn’t. A local dress-making company named Gunne Sax was looking for investors at the time, so McClintock put in $5,000 and immediately began designing and managing a new dress line of the same name.

She eventually took over the business and ran the Gunne Sax Company on her own. In the years that followed, McClintock’s dress designs would be sold worldwide to the tune of over $140 million in sales, and their unmistakable Edwardian and Victorian looks were all the rage for a generation of young women.

In addition to dresses, in the ’90s McClintock ventured into the fragrance market, as well as bedding, handbags, eyeglasses, and even furniture. At one point, she opened 41 stand-alone “Jessica McClintock” signature dress boutiques, and if you didn’t have a boutique near you, her designs were easily found in department stores and at shopping malls across the country.

Remember browsing the prom dress racks at shopping malls? The very recognizable McClintock dresses stood out, their layered taffetas resembling bakery cases full of sweet confections, and the lace and calico layered dresses reminiscent of prairie dresses of the early 70s. 

Millions of us middle-aged ladies fondly remember walking prom red carpets in McClintock and then again strolling down aisles as bridesmaids, and then many of us were even wed in her formalwear. But her popularity waned in the early 2000s, and a corporate shift around 2013 saw the closing of her boutiques, and less of a concentration in dresses.

McClinctock Bridal made a return to dress shops in the fall of 2019, and in 2020 her formalwear, special occasion, and evening wear came raging back into department stores. Though the pandemic left few events for young women to attend in formalwear, something tells me when life opens back up, many a teen will be more than ready to don a McClintock dress for prom.

McClintock was quoted as saying:

I have a romantic feeling about life.

Jessica McClintock

The hard edges will always be there because, let’s face it, women are living in a world where they have to keep up with men. So I design for memories, for dreams, the softness of life.

Jessica McClintock

And when I think back to a formal event I was at in the late ’80s, she certainly did help create a lot of wonderful memories — bows, lace, taffeta, and all. 

More to Read:

What I Loved About Being a Teen in the 80’s

About Melissa Fenton

Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. Find her on Facebook 
and on twitter at @melissarunsaway

Read more posts by Melissa

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