Having taking many courses in Costume Design and Art History, I am extremely fascinated by the evolution of dress and how different times and cultures progress, repeat and improve upon the fashions and technologies of the time.
I thought what better way to start a series of “History Of” than by delving into one of the most iconic pieces of all time, The Little Black Dress. And so it goes…
Let’s get this straight; Coco Chanel did NOT invent the Little Black Dress.
Yes, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel did play a very influential role in bringing the LBD to the market and popularizing it for the masses, but she did not invent the concept of “the little black dress.” There are many precursors to the October 1926 issue of Vogue, where Chanel’s design first appeared. The picture published was a short and simple dress – calf-length, straight and decorated by only a few diagonal lines. Vogue called it “Chanel’s Ford,” likening the modest garment to the reliable Model-T of the time. Henry Ford’s famous words, “any customer can have a car painted in any colour that he wants so long as it’s black,” are practically sewn into the seams of the LBD. At this time, Vogue was publishing lengthy reviews of Parisian fashions, pages and pages of the latest sketches and designs from top French designers. Names like Jeanne Lanvin, Jean Patou, Madeline Voinnet and Jacques Doucet graced the pages with descriptions detailing ever aspect of their designs.
Chanel earned this short sentiment:
“The Chanel “Ford” the frock that all the world will wear is model 817 of black crepe de chine.
The bodice blouses slightly at the front and sides and has a tight bolero at the back.
Especially chic is the arrangement of tiny tucks which cross in front.
Imported by Saks.”
That’s it. The small sketch that appeared in the October 1st issue barely caused a stir and definitely did not incite the overwhelming praise one would expect of the iconic LBD. Vogue did not make any mention of the LBD for quite some time after that, although Vogue Paris did call it the “uniform for the modern woman” the following month.
One thing to keep in mind is that the idea of a “little black dress” wasn’t exactly appealing or exciting to the average woman of the 20s. This was a time that was rapidly changing and women were starting to enter into the framework of society –- taking jobs in offices and participating in city life. With the advances of technology in the late 19th century, lights illuminated boulevards, making them safer to travel on and also allowing the nightlife to blossom in a whole new way. The downtown districts became populated with vaudeville theatres and small shops and at the dawn of the 20th century typical indoor Victorian life and entertainment shifted to a focus on the city and its public amusements.
As the 20th century progressed, hemlines became a bit shorter, coiffed hair was let down and cut and the modern woman discovered a new form of recreation – SHOPPING. Shopping as a verb was only entering into the vocabulary, but the young and revolutionary women of this time had little interest in a black and boring smock.
Prior to the 20s, the Victorian and Edwardian eras were times with a sophisticated and symbolic language of dress. In this case, the black dress was most commonly associated with funerals and the attire of a widow. Widows at this time were expected to wear several stages of mourning dress for at least two years. “Deep” or “full” mourning lasted the first year and a day after the death of her husband and required the woman to wear plain black with absolutely no decoration. The second stage, lasting 9 months, she could now wear black silk. In “ordinary mourning” for three months, the widow could accessorize with black ribbon, lace or jet jewelry. The final six months of “half-mourning” allowed the bereaved to wear muted or neutral colors: shades and tints of purple were most common.
As the number of deaths rose during WWI and with the Spanish influenza, it became more common for women to be seen wearing black in public. So when did the LBD become so chic then? If the daring and bold women of the 20s did not want to be mistaken for being in mourning in their funeral attire…
When the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929 and fortunes began to quickly disappear, funds tightened and the public entered into a time of frugality and practicality. The new movie houses offered a cheap form of entertainment, and the audience admired glamorous gals wearing black dresses that appeared so sharp and crisp on film. At the same time, American designers and manufacturers traveled to Paris to steal designs and noticed the black Chanel. Taking the style, they campaigned that this Parisian export was a “must-have” for every fashionable lady. According to Bill Blass, designer Nettie Rosenstein “practically invented the little black dress for Americans.”
By the mid-1930s, “the little black dress” became a commonly used phrase within advertising, with department stores proclaiming it to be the piece women “can’t live without.” Fashion took a hard hit during the wartime of 1939 to 1945. During World War II fashion was not exactly a priority, so the sophisticated and no-frills black dress made its way into women’s closets.
After the war ended, Hollywood entered into a period of the “Femme Fatale” and “Bombshell” leading ladies such as Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe, who all donned the sexy black dress. As the years went on, the idea that “every smart woman has one little black dress in her wardrobe” seeped into the public consciousness. Chanel, herself, encouraged this edict, claiming, “One is never over nor underdressed in a little black dress.”
However, I argue that Audrey Hepburn wearing the LBD by Givenchy in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is the REAL turning point. The black sheath sleeveless gown with a fitted bodice has been described as the most famous little black dress of all time. In 2006, it was auctioned at Christie’s in London at a final price of about £470,000 or $800,000 US dollars.
After this point, I think almost every LBD harkens back to the one Holly Golightly so effortlessly threw on as she walked down 5th Avenue. Styles have progressed, hemlines of cocktail dresses have become shorter, more flared, more elaborate – but the true LBD, the most iconic one is that from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.