Little black dress
A little black dress (LBD) is a black evening or cocktail dress, cut simply and often quite short. Fashion historians ascribe the origins of the little black dress to the 1920s designs of Coco Chanel and Jean Patou intended to be long-lasting, versatile, affordable, accessible to the widest market possible and in a neutral colour. Its ubiquity is such that it is often simply referred to as the "LBD".
The "little black dress" is considered essential to a complete wardrobe by many women and fashion observers, who believe it a "rule of fashion" that every woman should own a simple, elegant black dress that can be dressed up or down depending on the occasion: for example, worn with a jacket and pumps for daytime business wear or with more ornate jewelry and accessories for evening. Because it is meant to be a staple of the wardrobe for a number of years, the style of the little black dress ideally should be as simple as possible: a short black dress that is too clearly part of a trend would not qualify because it would soon appear dated.
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Prior to the mid-1800s, a completely black ensemble broadcast the wealth of the wearer, as a mordant for black had not yet been invented. When logwood with ferrous sulfate as a mordant was introduced, this social symbol declined, and the color black became relatively accessible for clothing. Contrary to popular modern opinion, it was not reserved for mourning; it was recommended in popular ladies' magazines of the period as a versatile, unchanging, and forever-stylish choice. Readers were advised to choose a black silk, preferably plainly woven, as the basis for their wardrobes, as black was almost always appropriate for situations that may arise. The silk had to be good quality, so that the dress would last for years to come, and so that it would stand being turned when the other side faded slightly. If the bodice went out of style, fabric from the skirt could be used to alter it.
In 1926 Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel published a picture of a short, simple black dress in American Vogue. It was calf-length, straight and decorated only by a few diagonal lines. Vogue called it "Chanel's Ford". Like the Model T, the little black dress was simple and accessible for women of all social classes. Vogue also said that the LBD would become "a sort of uniform for all women of taste". However, other couture designers, such as Edward Molyneux, had produced several designs in the 1920s prior to the debut of Chanel's dress. These designs simply happened to not be featured by Vogue. And couture houses had featured dresses and ensembles in black since the founding of haute couture. The notion that Chanel invented the little black dress is utterly unfounded.
The little black dress continued to be popular through the Great Depression, predominantly through its economy and elegance, albeit with the line lengthened somewhat. Hollywood's influence on fashion in North America helped the little black dress' popularity, but for more practical reasons: as Technicolor films became more common, filmmakers relied on little black dresses because other colors looked distorted on screen and botched the coloring process. During World War II, the style continued in part due to widespread rationing of textiles and in part as a common uniform (accessorized for businesswear) for civilian women entering the workforce.
The rise of Dior's "New Look" in the post-war era and the sexual conservatism of the 1950s returned the little black dress to its roots as a uniform and a symbol of the dangerous woman. Hollywood femme fatales and fallen women characters were portrayed often in black halter-style dresses in contrast to the more conservative dresses of housewives or more wholesome Hollywood stars. Synthetic fibres made popular in the 1940s and 1950s broadened the availability and affordability of many designs.
The generation gap of the 1960s created a dichotomy in the design of the little black dress. The younger "mod" generation preferred, in general, a miniskirt on their versions of the dress and designers catering to the youth culture continued to push the envelope - shortening the skirt even more, creating cutouts or slits in the skirt or bodice of the dress, using sheer fabrics such as netting or tulle. Many other women in the 1960s aspired to simple black sheath dresses similar to that designed by Hubert de Givenchy and worn by actress Audrey Hepburn in the film Breakfast at Tiffany's.
The popularity of casual fabrics, especially knits, for dress and business wear during the 1980s brought the little black dress back into vogue. Coupled with the fitness craze, the new designs incorporated details already popular at the time such as broad shoulders or peplums: later in the decade and into the 1990s, simpler designs in a variety of lengths and fullness were popular. The grunge culture of the 1990s saw the combination of the little black dress with both sandals and combat boots, though the dress itself remained simple in cut and fabric.
The new glamour of the late 1990s led to new variations of the dress but, like the 1950s and the 1970s, colour re-emerged as a factor in fashion and formalwear and repeatedly shows an aversion to black. The resurgence of body conscious clothing, muted colour schemes, and the reemergence of predominant black, along with the retrospective trends of the 1980s in the late 2000s paved way to the return of interest to the dress.
Famous little black dresses
The black Givenchy dress of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, designed by Hubert de Givenchy, epitomized the standard for wearing little black dresses accessorized with pearls (together called "basic black"), as was frequently seen throughout the early 1960s. The dress set a record in 2006 when it was auctioned for £410,000, six times its original estimate. Betty Boop, a cartoon character based in part on the 1920s' "It Girl" Clara Bow, was drawn wearing a little black dress in her early films, though with Technicolor later, Betty's dress became red.
Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, was known to own several little black dresses and said much in praise of the garments. One quote of the Duchess: "When a little black dress is right, there is nothing else to wear in its place." Edith Piaf, the French folk icon, performed in a black sheath dress throughout her career: for this habit she was nicknamed "little black sparrow". It was thought that the dress helped audiences focus more on Piaf's singing and less on her appearance.
In an incident at London's Covent Garden theatre in 2004, a director fired the then-obese soprano Deborah Voigt from an opera because she could not fit into a "little black cocktail dress", replacing her with the slimmer Anne Schwanewilms.
In popular culture
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A number of songs are titled "Little Black Dress", including "Little Black Dress" from the 1981 musical Shock Treatment, which is sung whilst one of the antagonists sews up a little black dress and presents it to the heroine, who wears it in the second half of the film.
The Hollies 1972 Single "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" was written for the album Distant Light about a woman who mesmerized the lead singer in a black dress. It sold 2 million copies worldwide and reached #2 on the Billboards Hot 100
"Little Black Dress" is a song by San Diego-based roots reggae band One Drop, from the 2008 release Mission Blvd.
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- Vivien Schweitzer, "Music Review: A Slimmed-Down Diva Keeps Her Vocal Heft," New York Times, June 18, 2009, found at New York Times website. Accessed May 27, 2009.
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