The Evolution of the Little Black Dress
Posted on October 16 2015
From wearing more sassy numbers during the evening to avoiding particular colors because they upset your complexion the list of fashion do’s and don’ts is relentlessly long. To complicate matters there are critics and fashion mavens around every corner telling you what is hot and not and questioning even celebrity choices.
As the Chief Buyer for The Kewl Shop I’ve learned one very simple thing: trying to keep up with the trends is easier said than done but generally, the best thing to do is to keep an eye on the trendsetters you love and be decidedly more relaxed when it comes to overall fashion rules. With the trends and styles always changing and varying depending on the time of year there is one go to closet staple that everyone swears by and unanimously agrees on - the little black dress also affectionately called the LBD. The little black dress is a very basic closet staple and fashion essential that every woman needs in her wardrobe.
Black slims and defines your body type unlike any other color. It gives you versatility that works for every occasion from nights out with your friends to more sober affairs. It pairs well with every shoe in your closet and is easily dressed up or down with statement jewelry, hairstyles, and layers.
What is the LBD?
By definition, a little black dress is a short black cocktail or evening dress with a simple and feminine design or style. The general consensus is that the little black dress must be simple because simplicity equates to versatility that allows you to wear the dress everywhere - literally. A short black dress that follows a specific trend would appear dated once the trend wears off and would not qualify as the quintessential LBD.
A LBD easily works for both day and night affairs. These little numbers are seen in board meetings with blazers and on dance floors at the hottest night clubs. A little black dress is paired with pumps, heels, sandals, or wedges. However, having an LBD has not always been a style commandment. There was a time when black dresses, little or otherwise, were relegated to funeral wear and signified bereavement or mourning. When did the little black dress begin to become one of our favorites and go to styles? Here’s a look at the illustrious history of the LBD that has made it what it is today.
The Portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent sheds light on the use of black dresses prior to the 1920s. Mainly reserved for mourning periods, a black dress was considered inappropriate wear in other situations. A widow’s black mourning dress was heavily policed, with the tiniest of details including the material, accessories (well lack thereof) and shades of black defined and utilized to make mourning dresses.
The dress created by Chanel (see image below) was the epitome of simplistic elegance – calf-length, sheath design, and delicate diagonal lines. Women everywhere took notice and the acceptance and appreciation for the little black dress began. In fact, Vogue dubbed it “Chanel’s Ford”, referring to Ford’s Model T car that was known to be simple and affordable for people of all social classes.
While the black dress was not invented by world renowned fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, she is credited with conceptualizing the “little black dress” to its fashion staple form recognized today. In the book “Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life”, Justine Picardine explains, “The little black dress was not formally identified as the shape of the future until 1926, when American Vogue published a drawing of a Chanel design… It was an apparently simple yet elegant sheath, in black crêpe de Chine, with long, narrow sleeves, worn with a string of white pearls; and Vogue proved to be correct in the prediction that it would become a uniform for all women of taste...”.
Black is flattering, and the LBD retained its popularity through the dire times of the Great Depression. Women from all economic backgrounds found that a simple LBD met all their needs – fashion-oriented as well as practical. The little black dress did not just appeal to the masses, it was also the chosen dress for glamorous entertainers such as one of France’s first international cabaret singer, songwriter, and actress Edith Piaf, aka La Vie en Rose Piaf. Piaf only appeared in a little black dress during her performances. Although the styles and designs varied the basics of a LBD was always firmly in tact.
Post the war, designer Christian Dior revamped the LBD for his legendary New Look. This look cinched the dress at the waistline and added a flowing full skirt. The look was decidedly more princess like with fuller skirts but the simplicity of the design of Dior’s little black dress in 1948 stood the test of time and simply seemed to opened up the fashion world’s perceptions of what the little black dress could be for women everywhere. As years passed, Dior amended the LBD trend to include leaner sheaths. These sleek and trendy sheath LBDs became the dominant trend of the 1950s.
By the 1950s we began seeing the little black dress fairly everywhere. Women from all walks of life loved the look and enjoyed a conservative and versatile style that allowed them to add their own flavor during a time when it was a bit more challenging to do so. From necklaces to hair bows we saw a slow and gradual move from sheath style little black dresses cinched at the waists with full skirts and back to sheath in the 1950s.
One of the most famed displays of the little black dress was noted when newlywed Marilyn Monroe stepped out with husband Arthur Miller in a wool-crepe LBD cocktail dress by Galanos. Monroe’s dress had a sensational bare chiffon midriff that was very risky and taboo at the time.
When speaking about the most iconic LBD, who can forget Audrey Hepburn in an LBD, pearl choker, oversized glasses, hat, and gloves, playing role of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? The dress worn in the film was designed exclusively for Hepburn by one of her closest friends and a world famous fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy. This little black dress became exceptionally famous and was auctioned at Christie’s in London in 2006 for just under $1 million.
The dress is described as “perhaps the most famous little black dress of all time”. Helen Cowley, publisher of the LOVEFiLM survey of 2010 remarks, “Audrey Hepburn has truly made that little black dress a fashion staple which has stood the test of time despite competition from some of the most stylish females around.”
The stars in 1960s took to the little black dress and began to show us just what it was capable of. In 1965 Italian film actress Sophia Lauren added an animalistic appeal to the LBD and was photographed wearing a timeless black dress, accessorized with a brooch, and a leopard-print hat.
Cut to the years of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in her frilly decorative LBD that she choose to wear on more than one occasion. Onassis first wore the dress to dinner at the La Côte Basque, a famous French restaurant known for its style, lavish, and fresh flowers. Onassis revived the dress quite a few times after that as she was a staunch believer of not retiring a dress just because she was photographed in it once.
Hugh Grant’s escapades, sexual and otherwise, made it to the news again and again. But the minute his then-wife and actress Elizabeth Hurley stepped on the red carpet wearing a head-turning black dress complete with gold oversized safety pins designed by Gianni Versace, she was all anyone could talk about. Resetting fashion standards, industry experts vow that this iconic LBD launched Liz Hurley’s career into the movie business. If the highest form of flattery is copying, this dress is much-loved as there are many modern-day replicas of this scintillating number.
In 1994, Princess Diana brought the LBD much fame by wearing a dangerously low-cut black gown to her public debut as the fiancée of Prince Charles. While her choice of dress raised plenty of eyebrows back in the day, no one could deny the panache and sheer beauty of her “revenge” dress.
Victoria Beckham aka Posh Spice from the famous all-girls band “Spice Girls” wore her LBDs everywhere! Perhaps the most famous one was her strapless Gucci LBD worn onstage during her concerts.
Favored by the British Royalty and the White House, the LBD made an appearance in 2009 when first lady Michelle Obama stepped out in a dainty Azzedine Alaia little black dress. The dress was reminiscent of the 1950s LBD silhouette yet provided modern allure and sophistication. The first lady continues to put on a LBD as often as she sees fit for various situations.
Wearing an ornate necklace and a strapless LBD, Canadian model Heidi Klum made waves at the 2010 Emmy Awards. The 42-year-old model confesses her love for the LBD and has been seen wearing different versions of it regularly. From low-cut dresses to skin-tight leather numbers, Klum’s choices go to show how versatile, timeless, and photogenic a little black dress brilliantly is.
Beyoncé was named the highest paid female musician in the world in 2014, and the “Drunk in Love” singer showed off her flawless looks by donning a $130 sequined LBD from the British high-street store Topshop, reinforcing the idea that the LBD can be worn with panache, whatever your budget is.
Pairing her simple little black dress with a monogrammed bag from Louis Vuitton and black platform shoes, Taylor Swift inspired the new-age of little black dress wearers in 2015 as she got ready to take center stage on her world tour for the album 1989.
The Little Black Dress is Here Forever
The little black dress is a sartorial powerhouse that easily dresses up and down depending on the occasion or your mood. From Hepburn’s Givenchy to the little black dresses worn by iconic women over the ages, this dress has become the uniform of choice for women from all walks of life, as predicted. It is a closet staple with timeless appeal and has inspired designers over the years to keep it classic, get a bit risky, or find a stylish and attractive balance of the two. The LBD has evolved and continues to be a fluid fashion choice in our wardrobes. While there are plenty of bling alternatives out there, a classic and elegant version of the LBD is something that you keep in your closet forever as a go to in a fashion pinch.
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