As Karl Lagerfield put it, ‘One is never over-dressed or underdressed with a little black dress’. It’s a staple item that works for every occasion — Halloween, for example, is a perfect opportunity to use the LBD in a creative way, for the best costume in the room. But how did simple black dresses manage to become a uniform for women?
The key is in their simplicity, making them adaptable to every woman’s style. Black clothing was once associated with wealth, romance and artistry, therefore was imbued with a certain elegance; however, in the 19th century, black became inseparable from mourning. It wasn’t until Chanel’s impact in the 1920s that the fashionable LBD — accessible to everyone — came into being.
American Vogue published a design of one of Coco Chanel’s black dresses, calling it ‘The Chanel ‘Ford’ — the frock that all the world will wear’. The dress was notable for its simplicity; it could be worn by all women, of all classes. Chanel had her finger on the pulse of contemporary fashion in reinventing the black dress as chic rather than a symbol of mourning, since black fabric was so affordable and accessible for all. This was especially integral to the LBD gaining its popularity, because the Great Depression, and later World War II, meant that fashion prioritised economy. The simple black dress became a favourite with women by combining elegance with affordability.
In the 1950s, Christian Dior reshaped popular fashion with his New Look, which emphasised the conservatism of this decade through its full skirts, and placed the LBD in the realm of the femme fatale, the dangerous woman, as began cropping up in Hollywood more frequently. The younger mod generation of the 1960s revived and redesigned the little black dress to suit their taste for miniskirts, whereas other women favoured more simple sheath silhouettes. This latter preference can be seen when another designer inserted their claim to the LBD, Givenchy, with the iconic dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The image of Hepburn admiring the Tiffany’s shopfront, complete with sunglasses and a croissant, has become iconic for women’s fashion in general, not just for the little black dress. Givenchy’s simple sheath was inspired by Chanel’s dresses as popularised by the 1926 Vogue. Another Givenchy black dress is seen throughout Breakfast at Tiffany’s, styled with different accessories for each day, making it appear a completely different outfit. This emphasised the perfection of the LBD, its effortless elegance and simplicity allowing it to be adjusted to every woman’s taste, and not just those of a higher class. For these reasons, it’s become such a fashion staple and has withstood the test of time.
The 1980s made the little black dress more casual, with the rising popularity of everyday fabrics, but also allowed for more styles to diversify the dress – shoulder pads, a variety of lengths, you name it. The 1990s continued this diversification with new ways to wear it, incorporating the new grunge culture, but also exploring minimalism. The LBD, so diverse and yet so simple, has thus created some of the most famous dresses of our time. When Liz Hurley, then-unknown, appeared at the Four Weddings and a Funeral premiere in her black Versace dress embellished with safety pins, later termed ‘THAT dress’, she and Versace became worldwide sensations. Diana’s another example — everyone knows about the revenge dress. The off-the-shoulder black evening gown Princess Diana sported as she arrived at a Vanity Fair dinner in 1994, the night that Charles admitted to adultery on television, remains one of the most iconic fashion moments of the past century. Chanel predicted the popularity of the LBD back in the 1920s, but she couldn’t have anticipated the centrality it would achieve in women’s fashion. A wardrobe simply isn’t complete without one.
Featured image: Henry & Co. on Unsplash