The Wardrobe: The History of the Little Black Dress

I'm wearing: Dress: Alexandra / Hat: Vintage / Purse: Zara / Boots: Nickles / Earrings: H&M

The little black dress is a classic withstanding the passing of decades and the changes of fashion. It's understated elegance and versatility gave the LDB a symbol of wardrobe essential appropriate for every occasion - from a day at the office to a cocktail party. In 1944 Vogue declared that "10 out of 10 women have one."

However, the piece we now consider a classic wasn't always celebrated. Once, it was considered unfit for a lady and was worn only by women in service, while the rich wore pale colors, associated with wealth because they were easier to clean. Black was not a fashion color. Worn by a lady it signified that she was mourning. 

It was Mademoiselle Coco Chanel who changed these rules in the 1920s and turned the little black dress into a chic staple. The rebellious designer told the story of one of the first times she wore a black dress to a public event to her friend Claude Delay. 

 She was dressing to go to the opera with several friends at her apartment in the Avenue Gabriel. "I'd never been to the Opera before. I had a white dress made by my own  modistes. My hair, which came down bellow my waist, was done up around my head in three braids- all that mass set straight upon that thin body. There was a gas burner in the bathroom. I turned on the hot tab to wash my hands again, the water wasn't hot, so I fiddled with the pilot-light and the whole thing exploded. My white dress was covered in soot, my hair - the less said, the better. I only had to wash my face again - I didn't use make-up. In those days only the cocottes used make-up and were elegant. The women of the bourgeoisie weren't groomed - and they wore hats that flopped all over the place, with birds' nests and butterflies. I took a pair of scissors and cut one braid off. The hair sprang out at once all round my face. In those days I had hair like sable." After that she cut the second braid and asked her maid to cut off the third. The girl began to cry but Chanel didn't care. "I slipped on a black dress I had, crossed in front - what a marvelous thing, young - caught in at the waist, with a sort of minaret on top." 

With her bobbed hair and sleek black dress impressed everyone at the Opera. "The darling of the English became the beauty of Paris," she said to Delay. (Coco Chanel. The legend and the life. by Justine Picardie) 

In 1926 Vogue featured a little black dress designed by Chanel. With its short skirt, long sleeves and diagonal detailing it look fresh and modern - exactly what the forward-thinking 1920s woman was looking for. Often made of velvet and lace for the evening or wool for the day it could make anyone look elegant without great expense.  

Mademoiselle herself identifies the origins of the black dress dating back to the beginning of the decade in a conversation with Paul Morand. "At about that time, I remember contemplating the auditorium of the Opera from the back box. Those reds, those greens those electric blues made me feel ill. These colors are impossible. These women, I'm bloody well going to dress them in black ... I imposed black; it's still going strong today, for black wipes out everything else around." (Coco Chanel. The legend and the life. by Justine Picardie) 

And so she did what she vowed. Coco Chanel's legacy still lives on. Is there a woman today that doesn't own a black dress in her wardrobe or a designer who has not offered some version of the classic? From Christian Dior's New Look black dress with it's slim waist and and padded hips, through Hubert de Givenchy's iconic design worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) to Prada, Preen, Calvin Klein and Dolce & Gabbana. 

It is hard to imagine times when the black dress won't look modern, chic and elegant.  

If you enjoyed this you might also like: 

The Wardrobe: The Charisma of Black
The Wardrobe: Birthday Outfit & Short History of Velvet
Moment in Time: The Mystery of Chanel No.5

You can now follow me on Instagram @plamenazahova.



Imogen said…
It sure is hard to imagine a time when the black dress was not considered classy and elegant. So true that 10/10 women have one! Beautiful pictures. This post was really interesting and I learned a lot.
Nice Fashion ....

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