The Eternal Youth of the Little Black Dress
Updated: May 21
It is a piece of fabric that my granny owns and a 'going out' outfit I invested in first. Almost everyone has one and if they don't, they are probably considering getting one. It's simply the most versatile piece that anyone can own, it was worn with pearl necklaces in the 50's and is styled with sneakers today, it gives one the power to really make it their own without having to worry it might not work. The main attraction of the classic LBD is that it was not designed for a particular body shape or for a certain age, it was made for everyone to possess and accessible to anyone because it's the cheapest key to understated and effortless elegance. I'd say it gives the red lipstick a run for its money because even the classic red lip does not work on everyone. But as loved as it is today, it did encounter rocky beginnings.
"Black is poetic. How do you imagine a poet? In a bright yellow jacket? Probably not."- Ann Demeulemeester
Black was considered a colour rich in symbolism; in the 18th century it stood for romance and artistry and in the early 19th century it became a colour adapted by the likes of the first 'hippies' such as Byron, Shelley and Keats during the Romantic era for its melancholic aura. Although the black dress is so adored today, it first caused controversy (like all cool things.) In 1883-1884 John Singer Sargent painted a picture of a young socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau wearing a form-fitting black gown and titled it 'Madame X.' The painting caused a lot of controversy as it was 'too sexy' with Sargent's career enduring a set- back in France after being unveiled at Paris Salon in 1884. Although the colour represented sensuality up to this point, during the Victorian era, the colour gained a new meaning as it now became a colour of mourning worn up to 4 years after death while also becoming a colour of service as maids began wearing it.
" I imposed black; it's still going strong today, for black wipes out everything else around."- Coco Chanel
The 20th century was when the classic received the reception it deserved. In 1926 Vogue unveiled a drawing featuring a little black dress with long narrow sleeves accessorised with pearls and titled it 'Chanel's Ford' and called it a "sort of uniform for all women of taste." The timing was perfect- America was retreating into the Great Depression after the glamour of the Jazz era and the modern woman needed something simple yet affordable. The dress was accessible to all and represented everything a woman in the early 20th century wanted to be: elegant, sophisticated and confident. Thanks to Coco Chanel, black was no longer a colour of mourning but of high-status, wealth and style. The black dress could be worn with everything and it was not long before Hollywood starlets like Joan Bennet fell in love with it too. The black dress was now a fashion staple in every woman's wardrobe and put its best foot forward to reign as a modern woman's uniform in the 20th century.
"I have no dress except the one I wear everyday. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go the laboratory." - Madame Marie Curie
In the post-war era, women had different demands. The world had changed; sexual conservatism was flourishing, women started to enter the workforce and black once again had different connotations. The dress now had to live up to the challenge of being elegant and practical, something it never had to be before. Black was now a uniform colour for women entering the practical, modern and industrialised world. But a new world also meant new talent and new people. In 1947 another Parisian designer was on the rise and he introduced the 'New Look', a collection that sky-rocketed Christian Dior into the luxurious fashion house it is today. The old black dress got a sexy update and liberated women from the hands of conservatism- it now had a full skirt and accentuated the waist, and became the iconic halter dress as we would call it now. New silhouettes and styles became available and synthetic fibres were introduced meaning that even a working-class woman could dress like a siren from the higher society. Once again, it was met with controversy with Hollywood films making 'fallen women' wear black halter style dresses as they became a symbol of rebellion and trouble. It was not long before starlets like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor and even royals like Grace Kelly adapted the style on and off screen. In the 50's, film studios also often relied on the LBD for their starlets as it was the most prominent colour on the old technicolor screens.
The 60's rolled around along with a generation gap and the little black dress was altered once again. The most famous LBD in cinematic history was undoubtedly Givenchy's beautiful creation worn by Audrey Hepburn in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' in 1961. Due to the conservatism left over after the 50's and the fact that the Beatles were not yet a thing just like the popularity of activism and equality, the dress was altered by Edith Head as the film studios felt that it was 'too short' and showed 'too much' of Audrey's leg. Despite that, the original dress was auctioned off in 2009 for a massive £467 thousand- not bad for an altered dress. But because the 60's wouldn't be the 60's if something new wasn't introduced, sheath dresses began gaining momentum. For once, the youngsters really revelled in their youth- they didn't want to wear heels or be barely able to breathe, they wanted comfort and to feel young. The mod's loved miniskirts therefore the little black dress became shorter and often featured slits and cutouts- it was not as sophisticated anymore but instead became a staple of youthful casual elegance without having to dress it up too much. It was enjoyed by the likes of Twiggy who represented the youth of the 60's but also by Jackie O who was a political figure and is still a fashion icon to this day.
The grunge culture of the 1990's made the little black dress a minimalist slip dress usually worn with sandals or combat boots. Every woman now had the freedom to wear it however they want. Conservatism began losing momentum and women had full autonomy of their individuality, they wore what pleased them rather than their significant other. Feminism and girl power gained massive popularity due to the rise of the Spice Girls and everything changed into the fast-paced and hectic world we live in today. The 90's were known for establishing classics: jeans, the leather jacket but most importantly the little black dress as it became the revenge dress that showed Prince Charles what he lost or could have had as well as the dress that crowned Victoria Beckham as the posh spice. It had full versatility and full autonomy in the hands of the wearer and became the one piece you simply must have.
Today it's shorter and tighter than ever but it's easy to see that just like the red lip it will never go away. It is classy yet seductive, simple yet eye-catching but most importantly it's old as time but new as day. Just like my grandmother donned hers in the 80's, I wear mine in the almost 2020's- almost 100 years after 'Chanel's Ford' yet it still represents the same meaning; it can be worn by any woman: short or tall, young or old, skinny or curvy, modest or brave. The little black dress is a tale old as time yet always with a new ending.