As stated in the title of this article, the US Vogue magazine in October 1926, described THE LITTLE BLACK DRESS as 'The Chanel "Ford", the frock that all the world will wear', because its mass appeal competed that of the Ford Model T car... Since then the little black dress entered the fashion lexicon as a fail-safe, versatile and timeless garment which became as one of the wardrobe's essential.
But why black and why it became a legend? The context of the era, of course, played a role, but let's look at the time before the 20th century, as well - let's look at the time after 1926! What does it reveal to us?
Black has always been a meaningful color rich in symbolism. Already since the early 18th century, black color in clothing represented romance and artistry. And here too, one can quote Ann Demeulemeester, one of the 21st century representative of fashion deconstruction, saying that, "Black is poetic. How do you imagine a poet? In a bright yellow jacket? Probably not." [ 5.]
And let's remember that exactly in the 20th century, with Coco Chanel, the little black dress became a festive dress. During 1920's Coco designed a quintessential and iconic garment that democratized elegance. Looking back at her accomplishments, we can see that Coco Chanel had previously introduced black dresses, from as early as 1913. Although the severe refined cut of the chemise-style dress of the 1920's lent itself to the dramatic geometric patterning of an era in thrall to the motifs of Art Deco. [1.]
While some researchers do not point to Coco as inventor of the little black dress, but they say, that claim has found its way into fashion mythology. And yet we can assume that she has activated it as a fashion statement and greatly influenced the status of the little black dress as a classic fashion item. In the same 1926 she introduced a simple black jersey day dress that strengthened the position of black as a fashion color in the 20th century. Besides, this was the real beginning of the legendary little black dress.
Since then the little black dress was translated to ready-to-wear as a staple of late afternoon and cocktail hours. Black had been used for formal and semi-formal occasions in preceding decades. The little black dress became a minimalist canvas for day, cocktail, and evening accessories, including hats, gloves, pocketbooks, and above all else, costume jewelry. As the silhouette of the little black dress evolved to accommodate the fashionable shape of each consecutive decade, it became more of a social institution than a design. [7.]
The Little Black Dress Before 1926
Since Medieval times Wearing black clothing has often taken on a social significance. During the Middle Ages, wealthy people wore black velvet clothes to display status as black dyes were expensive. Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good (1396 - 1467) made black for the color of the court dress. His court was regarded as the most splendid in Europe, and it became the accepted leader of taste and fashion, which probably helped the Burgundian economy considerably, as Burgundian (usually Flemish) luxury products became sought by the elites of other parts of Europe.
By the eighteenth century black clothing was considered respectable, even dowdy, as it was associated with mourning and the dress of the clergy. Black was revived as the color of elegance, especially for men, by the dandies of the early nineteenth century.
In the early 19th century, black was adopted by the poets and artists of the Romantic era. Romantics such as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats, due to melancholic aura of the color black.
Victorian Era reintroduced the color black again. Black transitions from a color of art to one of grief and mourning - widows were expected to wear black for at least four years - and also for service livery, as the uniform for maids.
Victorian Era was also a time of vivid colors. The introduction of aniline dyes later in the 19th century created a new vogue for bright colors for fashionable women's clothing. The black clothing for women signified mourning, or was a badge of middle-class respectability. When fashionable women did wear black it was to make a statement. One of the most memorable, if controversial, examples of this was John Singer Sargent's 1884 portrait of "Madame X," Virginie Gautreau, dressed in a form-fitting black evening gown. Conventional portraiture employed colorful frilly, even demure dress that all but obscured the subject. That Mme. Gautreau, a socialite of the day whose improprieties were hardly secret, appeared in a seductively form-fitting black gown with deep décolletage was quite a departure, underscoring the subject's decision to play by a different set of rules. [9.]
In the early 1900's, black "widow's weeds" were still being sold in department stores, but black was beginning to make appearances on other occasions as well. Paul Poiret made vivid colors fashionable between 1908 and 1914. Chanel claimed to be "nauseated" by Poiret's colors and favored instead black, beige, and navy blue. Her 1926 showing of the little black dress was a milestone in the creation of this fashion icon. In the meantime, the House of Premet had already had a great success with a (little) black dress (!). It had its sad reason because of the terrible death toll in World War I had resulted in a plethora of fashionable black dresses.[9.]
Iconic & Timeless - The Little Black Dress After 1926
At once demure and daring, the little black dress conjures up a host of images and associations. Consistently a symbol of elegance and chic, it is an international fashion icon capable of being interpreted in myriad different styles. Since the late 1920's, some of the world's most elegant women have been photographed wearing a the little black dress.[ 9.]
The little black dress continued to be popular during 1930's and through the Great Depression. Hollywood's influence helped the little black dress's popularity, but for more practical reasons. When technicolor films became more common, filmmakers relied on little black dresses because other colors looked distorted on screen and botched the coloring process. During World War II, the style continued in part due to widespread rationing of textiles, and in part as a common uniform for civilian women entering the workforce.
During the 1950's post-war era with the rise of Dior's The New Look, the little black dress returned to its roots as a uniform and a symbol of the dangerous woman. Hollywood's femme fatales and fallen women characters were portrayed in black halter-neck style dresses in contrast to the conservative dresses worn by housewives.
The generation gap of the 1960's created a dichotomy in the design of the little black dress. Many women aspired to simple black sheath dresses similar to the famous black dress by Givenchy worn by Audrey Hepburn in the film "Breakfast at Tiffany's".
The popularity of casual fabrics, especially knits, for dress and business wear during the 1980's brought the little black dress back into fashion statement. The grunge culture of the 1990's showed the combination of the little black dress with both sandals and military style or combat boots. At the same time, the little black dress remained plain and simple.
The new glamour of the late 1990's led to new variations of the dress. The resurgence of body conscious clothing, muted color schemes, and the reemergence of predominant black, along with the retrospective trends of the 1980's in the late 2000's paved way to the return of interest to the timeless little black dress.
References & Further Reading:
1. Fashion - the whole story. (general editor: Marnie Fogg). - Thames & Hudson, 2013
2.Ludot, Didier. The Little Black Dress: Vintage Treasure. New York: Assouline Publishing, 2001.
3. MacDonell Smith, Nancy. The Classic Ten: The True Story of the Little Black Dress and Nine Other Fashion Favorites. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
4. Mendes, Valerie. Dressed in Black. - London and New York: V & A Publications in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1999.
5. Steele, Valerie. The Black Dress. - Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 2007.
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My name is Edīte Parute and I am a fashion historian and researcher from Latvia, association member at "The Association of Dress Historians" (UK) and author of the book "Stila un modes enciklopēdija"/"Encyclopedia of Style and Fashion" (2010) as well as author of many publications.