Ah, the little black dress, it has a whole list of books named after it, a yearly charity gala, a CD, and an entry in wikipedia . Type “Little Black Dress” into Google, and you’ll get more than 30,000,000 results. Its ubiquity is such that many refer to it by acronym, LBD. The little black dress is so pervasive that it has become a metaphor for chicness and appropriateness; an iPod is the little black dress of technology; Odds are you have one hanging somewhere in your closet. It’s the dress you pull out and pair with pearls or a scarf when you want to feel chic. It’s the dress you pair with a jacket and sensible pumps to go to the office. It’s the dress you wear with nothing but some killer stilettos when you want to feel irresistible. Coco Chanel Behind the famed Mr. Monkey, you can see both the sketch and a picture of Chanel’s Ford dress, the original Little Black Dress. Photos taken in Manchester, England at the Urbis.
This year marks its 80th birthday, since its creation by Coco Chanel in 1926. The “Ford” dress, as American Vogue later called it, gained its name because, like the Henry Ford’s cars, it was an instant craze, widely available and, like the Model T, it came in only one color, black. Previously, black had been a color worn only to signify mourning, but with the new Jazz age, Chanel’s black dress with its form-fitting sleekness became a symbol of liberation. The fabric of the Ford dress was a fashion revolution as well; previously jersey had only been used for lingerie. A famed designer, Paul Poiret, of the previous era, unable to come to terms with the simplicity and new use of the color black, is said to have asked Chanel, “For whom are you in mourning, Mademoiselle?” Chanel’s reply? “For you, Monsieur!” Women adored this dress, which was designed to flatter many different body types and not show stains. Some suggest that it also became popular amongst the new Hollywood crowd because, unlike the flapper dresses, which were similar in length, Chanel’s beadless, fringeless Ford dress didn’t clack on the microphones in the growing field of “talkie films.” Others claim Nettie Rosenstein, a New York based Jewish designer was the true inventor of the little black dress. Rosenstein would later design the famed “Mamie Pink” inaugural dress for Mrs. Eisenhower. However, as Rosenstein did not design under her own name until 1931, it seems unlikely that her claim predates Chanel’s. One thing that is certain is that Ms. Rosenstein certainly popularized the little black dress in the United States.
In the 1930s, Chanel’s great rival was Elsa Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli was known mainly for her fantastic, surrealist designs, and for the color “shocking pink,” which we know today as hot pink. But Schiaparelli, despite her flamboyant design style, was not immune to the lure of the LBD. One of Schiaparelli’s most famous clients, Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, remarked that, “When the little black dress is right, there is nothing else to wear in its place.” However, Schiaparelli put her own creative stamp on the little black dress, in one case, designing a wrap version some forty years before Diane von Furstenberg. Even cartoons were in on the act; in the early Thirties, Betty Boop made a big splash in a little black dress so short you could see her garter. A handful of years later, her outfit would be so shocking that she would fall victim to the Production code censorship laws.
By the 1940s, the little black dress became popular due to the restrictions of the war. A sleeveless or short sleeved black sheath was both versatile and frugal in a time when the majority of fabric was directed toward the war effort. Many fashion magazines of the time recommended the little black dress as an excellent way to conserve fabric while remaining stylish. The narrow, shorter-length skirt of the classic little black dress tied in with the new minimalist aesthetic. This example of a 1940s little black dress comes from the Urbis. Note the pairing with a bolero jacket.
The little black dress really came into its own in the 1950s. In the postwar era, fabric restrictions had been lifted and as a result skirts became fuller. Many Hollywood designers featured the little black dress in their films, and during the fifties, where Hollywood went, fashion followed. No one can forget the little black dress from Sabrina, which, although credited on the film to Edith Head, was in fact designed by Hubert de Givenchy, thus starting one of the most enduring and famous designer/actress relationships of all times. In fact it was on the basis of that little black dress (well . . . ok, the little black dress and that amazing ball gown) that Audrey Hepburn requested him on virtually every film in which she starred. Hepburn wasn’t the only starlet to sport the LBD; Marilyn Monroe gave the Little Black Dress more curves than a Formula One racecourse in such films as Some Like It Hot and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Meanwhile, the emergence of “Cocktail Hour” and its subsequent attire practically begged for the not-too-formal, not-too-casual air of the LBD.
The dawn of the Sixties brought bar none, the most iconic little black dress of all time. No one will ever forget Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly in her sleeveless black sheath, chunky pearl necklace and oversized sunglasses, standing in front of Tiffany’s. Breakfast at Tiffany’s guaranteed both Audrey Hepburn’s and the LBD’s place in the unofficial Style Hall of Fame. Truman Capote, the author of the novel upon which the movie was based, also did his part for advancing the cause of the little black dress. In 1966, Capote threw his famous Black and White Ball, which many have called the Party of the Century. As the guests could only come attired in Black and White, the little black dress was the choice of attire for many of the women who attended. During this decade, Edie Sedgewick, star of Andy Warhol’s underground films, came to the public eye as the “it” girl of the mid-sixties. Frequently pictured in a simple little black dress, her style continues to influence trend-setters such as Sienna Miller today.
The Seventies were not kind to the little black dress. Day-glo colors, disco, and let’s face it, the fact that cocaine on black looked a little like dandruff forced the little black dress into the background of society. Odd were, however, that on any given night at Studio 54 you could find some woman in a form of the LBD, possibly with long, sweeping sleeves as a nod to disco style.
But by the 1980s, the LBD would come roaring back on the wings of power outfits and punk rock. The little black dress would straddle a huge cultural divide during this decade. On one hand, socialites were wearing Oscar de la Renta’s, Yves St. Laurents, and countless other designers high end interpretations of the LBD and discussing junk bonds; on the other, punk rockers sported ripped and torn versions of the LBD, adorned with handcuffs and safety pins, often fa
shioned from leather, lycra, PVC, or sometimes even garbage bags. Early in the Eighties, artists like Blondie wore versions of the LBD with asymmetrical necklines or interesting cutouts. For a prime example of the late eighties version of the punk/metal LBD, one has only to look at Kelly Bundy, wearing a black spandex dress with chunky silver jewelry and a black leather jacket on the show Married with Children. In the Mid-Eighties, a new voice for the little black dress would rise. Donna Karan would start her signature line. Seemingly a New York reincarnation of Chanel, Karan’s simplicity, elegance, and attention to the female figure would help make the little black dress the uniform of urban single women (and not-single women, too.) Her influence continued on into the 1990s, where the disparate trends of the Eighties began to merge in the world of fashion.
Notice the influence of the Punk movement in theuse of safety pins. During the 1990s, the edgy look of the punk/goth/metal subcultures had completely percolated into the world of high fashion. Skin was in, and “little” part of the LBD became as important as the “black dress.” Hemlines rose, necklines plunged, and ice-pick heels were worn, the better to show off those toned legs. Mariah Carey’s first CD featured the chanteuse in a form-fitting LBD (arguably the most tasteful outfit she ever wore.) A promotional poster for Friends featured the cast Perhaps the single most important series (fashion-wise) of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sex and the City did not discount the allure of the simple LBD with the men in black, and the women in little black dresses. Perhaps most telling is the cover of the first season of Sex and the City. The series, known for its ability to both track and set fashion chose to put its four actresses into little black dresses for the cover of the DVD. The little black dress ruled the Nineties, no doubt about it.
The little black dress stepped a little out of the spotlight during the first half of the new millennium. Designers were tired of black, black and more black, and the LBD was seen as a bit boring. Stars didn’t stop wearing it (I know I didn’t stop wearing it,) but the choice was frequently seen as “safe” as opposed to fashionable. Even though the LBD had drawn back from the cutting edge of fashion, it had entrenched itself even further in popular culture. In 2005, Jay Barrigar opened the Little Black Dress Shop [tag: http://www.littleblackdressshop.com/infoPage.php] in Toronto, Canada. That same year, Rosario Dawson starred in a short film, fittingly titled, “The Little Black Dress.” The LBD had moved into the background, but it was a comforting background for many women.
And now we live in the latest decade of the LBD, as sure of its appeal now as Chanel was eighty years ago. The very simplicity that made it so shocking back then is exactly what has allowed it to survive all the varying changes in fashion and trends. For Fall 2006, Zak Posen sent down his reinventions of the LBD. Many designers are working with the LBD in richer, textural fabrics like velvet and lace. However, these are just minor changes to tweak a classic; at its heart, the little black dress is a backdrop, a blank canvas. Its mood depends on the accessories you choose to pair with it. But always remember with a well-fitted, well-cut little black dress, the most important accessory will always be you.
Should you wish to explore the Urbis exhibit of the Little Black Dress, visit Mr. Monkey pictoral tour at http://www.houseoftheorangemonkey.co.uk/monkey/trips/trip88.htm.
For more information on Audrey Hepburn and her influence on fashion and film, try www.audrey1.com, a website I found most informative.
For those interested in finding out more about Elsa Schiaparelli, I suggest both http://www.fashion-era.com/stylish_thirties.htm and http://www.lifeinitaly.com/fashion/elsa-schiaparelli.asp.
If Nettie Rosenstein catches your interest, you can look here http://www.longlostperfume.com/denero.html or here http://www.cjh.org/education/essays.php?action=show&id=43.
All photos from the Urbis Exhibit courtesy of Rik Shepherd and Mr. Monkey
The Breakfast at Tiffany’s still courtesy of www.audrey1.com