In The Dress a summer dress is followed. That it is 'followed' should be taken literally; wherever the dress is, the camera is too.
The story opens with Cremer, a textile designer, who wakes up one morning to discover that his lover is leaving him. At the same moment, his employer phones to say that all his designs have been unanimously rejected. He is given just one week to come up with a suitable design. Inspired by the sari worn by his Indian neighbour, he designs a leaf motif on a blue background. During a meeting in which the colourful design is selected for production by director Loohman, an argument breaks out between him and Van Tilt, a subordinate advisor. The argument escalates and the furious Loohman sacks Van Tilt, cursing him with 'rotten luck'. This is the beginning of the downfall of both the cursed Van Tilt and the dress.
The first owner of the dress is Stella, an ordinary elderly housewife. By wearing the dress she is seized by a lust which is foreign to her nature and which finally proves fatal.
The dress comes into the possession of Johanna, a young housekeeper. Her boyfriend, Herman, who is an artist, works the leaf motif from the dress into the painting he is currently making. On the way home in the train Johanna is spotted by De Smet, a ticket collector (the only character, along with Van Tilt, who features crops up continually in the story) who, whenever he comes into contact with the dress, is overwhelmed by an insatiable lust bordering on madness. While Herman is out one evening, De Smet breaks into the house and tries to seduce Johanna, managing to convince her that he truly loves her. Caught off guard by Herman's sudden return, Johanna quickly makes a date to meet De Smet the following day. This second meeting ends in disaster. A series of unexpected events leads to Johanna's hysterical escape from De Smet, causing her to fall into the hands of a lecherous bus driver. Sickened by the misery which the dress has caused, she gives it away to two boys who are collecting clothes 'for Africa'.
The dress - now shorter and much sexier than before - comes into the possession of the young Chantalle, whose over-protective parents are going away for the weekend, leaving her alone in their isolated home. During a train journey earlier on in the day, Chantalle, wearing her new dress, is spotted by De Smet, who follows her home and manages to gain entry by means of a ruse. He forces her into performing strange, but ultimately harmless, sexual acts. The next morning she locks De Smet in and escapes from the house. De Smet is forced to climb out of her bedroom window, and in doing so, falls and injures his neck.
Chantalle's bag, containing the dress, is stolen in a park by Marie, a middle-aged female tramp. She puts the dress on over her clothes in a desperate attempt to keep warm in the face of the approaching winter. Comforted by the now down-and-out Van Tilt (whom we also saw briefly pushing a refreshments trolley on the same train as De Smet), Marie dies of cold and is cremated along with the dress.
This is not the end of the story, however. We come across De Smet again, walking round a museum of art, wearing a neck brace. He is suddenly confronted with Herman's painting, depicting the dress. What crazy acts will he be driven to this time?