The little black dress seems to be a bit of an enigma. It is both one of the blandest elements of a woman’s wardrobe – as the default option when stuck for what to wear for an occasion – and a stubbornly timeless, persistently revisited icon. Essentially a simple black cocktail dress that some regard pure elegance and others blunt dark wear. However it may be, there is a fuss surrounding it that in the end is fascinating given that it has past the test of time.
I was curious when did the term ‘little black dress’ was born, when did it all started and who started it. Apparently, it was in 1926, in an American Vogue illustration of Coco Chanel’s first black ‘Ford’. Vogue editors had named the dress after the era’s democratic black Model T automobile, predicting that the straight, long-sleeved design in unlined crèpe de chine accented with four diagonal stripes would “become sort of a uniform for all women of taste.” And they were soooo right!
For Chanel, black was the definition of simple elegance and, ever disregarding of conventions, she helped bring the color into everyday wear.
To put it differently, three decades earlier, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Madame Gautreau, better known as Madame X, in a black dress had provoked outrage in Paris. The jet-black look, with its straps and plunging décolleté, was considered indecent. In this case it wasn’t anything about the style, or the flash of naked shoulders, that upset a public used to ‘modern nudes’. Apparently, it was the DRESS that caused distress. And so it started – the little black dress – an attention grabber!
A stylist said “When a little black dress is right, there is nothing else to wear in its place.” And so, embraced as an icon of French elegance in the 20s, the little black dress nearly 90 years on is still going strong, with a family of icons still fuelling its myth. Notably, there is something about the slim sleeveless black dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s that continues to fascinate generations. Accessorized with black elbow gloves, a pearl choker, dark glasses and a cigarette holder, on Hepburn the gown was simply flawless. The dress was bought in an auction in 2006, for $765,000.
Deceptively simple, the little black dress, with its morphing silhouettes and features, can be seen as a marker of shifting social codes. In time, the little black dress has managed to adapt to all of the socio-political changes. Designer Miuccia Prada said: “To me, designing a little black dress is trying to express in a simple, banal object, a great complexity about women, aesthetics, and current times.”
From the wearer’s point of view, nothing is more flattering and versatile than the little black dress. Offering new personalities in the shape of the neckline or sleeve length, it smoothers contours, serving as a frame to exposed areas of skin – marking discretly the curves. It has been regarded as “an iconic, magical garment as it enhances a woman’s features and erases imperfections”.
The little black dress will be always interesting to designers because it is a wardrobe classic that we can experiment with and twist. The cut and the volume form the foundations, with the fabric bringing it to life. It’s a real creative exercise!
So, the little black dress is a must have, chameleonic item, never going out of style in your wardrobe – play with it, and look effortlessly fabulous!