Look into your closet. What’s in there that you’d never take out — never throw away in a million years? Chances are it’s a few select items: a vintage handbag your grandmother gave you, your favorite jeans, and a little black dress. The little black dress (aka LBD) may be an essential part of any woman’s wardrobe now, but it certainly hasn’t always been that way.
Before the 1920s, wearing the color black was strictly reserved for times of mourning. It was considered distasteful to wear it otherwise, because mourning dresses were symbolic. During the Victorian era, a grieving widow was expected to wear black for at least two years.
All of this changed at the will of a woman named Coco Chanel. In 1926, Chanel published a simple, short black dress in Vogue. The magazine called this dress “Chanel’s Ford,” because like the Model T, it was accessible to women of all social classes. Vogue said the dress was “a sort of uniform for all women of taste.”
In “Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life,” Justine Picardine described this first LBD as “a simple yet elegant sheath, in black crêpe de Chine, with long, narrow sleeves, worn with a string of white pearls.”
In 1961, the little black dress finally got its big Hollywood moment. The exquisite LBD designed by Hubert de Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” came to symbolize the epitome of chic, in a film that has influenced fashion more than most.
The LBD remained popular throughout the great depression because of its simple elegance — you didn’t need to spend a lot of money to keep yourself looking put together. They were popular in Hollywood during the Technicolor craze, because a black dress wouldn’t clash with the other colors on the screen as a brighter dress might.
It maintained its popularity during World War II, due to the rationing of textiles. It also became a sort of uniform for the droves of women heading to the workplace.
During the postwar conservative era of the 1950s and early 60s, the little black dress took a bit of a social hit. Though still worn, it was seen as a little dangerous — that the woman wearing it wasn’t quite so pure as the conservative woman in powder blue. THe 1960s gave it a bit of a revival, with the younger mod generation looking for all new lengths — hello mini skirt! — while the older more conservative set looked to classic sheaths, like the one worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
The little black dress has, for the most part, maintained its popularity through the decades since Chanel brought it into our lives in 1926. Though it’s had its stylistic variations — from the mod mini dress of the ’60s and big shoulders and peplum of the ’80s to the grunge in the ’90s, the motivation behind the dress has remained largely the same. A little black dress makes a woman feel beautiful and glamorous. It’s a long-lasting, versatile and affordable to a large market of women, and is certainly here to stay.
The LBD gives us a chameleon-like ability to fit into any kind of social situation, and therein lies its appeal. Little black dresses, designer Norma Kamali says, “take us to parties, job interviews, weddings and funerals. We experience all of life’s big events in the little black dress. It can be respectful or empowering, depending upon the design.”
“A little black dress allows the wearer to accentuate her physical gifts,” says Vogue Editor-at-Large Andre Leon Talley. You can thank Madame Chanel for daring to break away from convention to bring us this perfectly timeless wardrobe staple.