The Fascinating History of the Little Black Dress
While Coco Chanel is credited with designing a host of iconic garments, there is one singular style that ended up changing the face of fashion forever. Among many other important achievements, the fabulous French couture designer is credited with creating the very first Little Black Dress. Ever since Chanel debuted her statement-making style, women in virtually every generation have adopted the idea that no wardrobe is truly complete without the perfect Little Black Dress.
Over the years, this garment has become just as much a state of mind as it is an actual garment. The simple and elegant look is meant to highlight a woman’s natural beauty without ever detracting from her poise or sophistication. There have been several variations on the trend since Coco’s premier style, but it’s incredibly clear that the LBD isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Read on to learn more about the fascinating history of the Little Black Dress and understand how a simple item would change the fashion landscape for centuries to come.
The History of Black Dresses
Coco Chanel may have designed the first Little Black Dress, but women had been wearing black garments for decades before the French fashionista ever make her mark. Black dresses were incredibly prominent during the Victorian Era and were worn with a certain amount of frequency. Widowed women were expected to wear black for years after their husbands had passed away as a sign of mourning for their beloved. When Queen Victoria’s husband Albert died in 1861, she reportedly wore black dresses for the next forty years as a visible display of her sadness.
Black dresses were also typically worn by the working class during the 19th century. Maids, housekeepers, and cleaning women frequently had black dresses as uniforms because the dark color would hide dirt and other unsightly stains. While there was nothing “little” about the black dresses worn during this era, it is safe to say that historically the black dress was associated with mourning, poverty, and other generally negative connotations.
The World’s First LBD
Born in the late 19th century, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was a French seamstress and cabaret performer before becoming an iconic couturier and parfumier. After rising through the ranks of high society thanks to a string of wealthy and powerful lovers, in 1918 she opened the very first Chanel Boutique in Paris.
Chanel became a true trendsetter in every sense of the word. In the early parts of the 20th century, it was virtually unheard of for women to wear pants in public. Chanel, however, rejected this idea and designed menswear-inspired items like trousers and relaxed pajama-style suits that possessed a feminine and ladylike flair. The Roaring Twenties was a time when people were happily rejecting social norms, and Chanel’s statement-making styles were as groundbreaking and revolutionary as they were fabulous and fashion-forward. They fit right in with the new sportswear items that were gracing the runways and making their way into everyday society.
By 1926, Chanel was enormously successful among high class circles in Paris. In October of that year, one of her designs graced the cover of Vogue and forever changed the way that women would dress themselves. The model on the cover was adorned in a long sleeved crêpe de Chine dress with a relaxed silhouette and dropped waist. It was accessorized only with a strand of pearls and a simple cloche hat. This iconic garment was the world’s very first official Little Black Dress.
Whether thanks to incredible foresight or an intuitive hunch, Vogue heralded the design as a revolutionary garment and proclaimed that the look was a “uniform for all women of taste.” During the same time period, Henry Ford was mass producing the Model T in “any color… so long as it’s black,” which lead to the writers at Vogue naming the black dress Chanel’s “Ford,” insinuating that it was a simple yet luxurious item that was accessible to the masses. Their predictions were, of course, correct. Ever since October of 1926, the Little Black Dress has been an iconic and important part of every fashionable women’s wardrobe.
Aside from being exceptionally fabulous, there are other historical reasons that the Little Black Dress became a global sensation. Chanel’s Little Black Dress was introduced just as The Great Depression was roaring to life. Suddenly, even wealthy women were seeking a look that was beautiful and elegant, but also affordable. A plain black evening dress would provide the perfect fit and allow women from all classes and incomes to have an elegant garment in their fashion repertoire.
Following the Great Depression, the world was thrown into the second World War. During this time, everyone’s purse strings were tightened, as any extra money and rations were donated to the war effort. Luxurious fabrics like silk were incredibly rare and were luxury items that were not accessible (or appropriate) for everyday women to wear. Simple black fabrics, however, were plentiful. Once again, Little Black Dresses allowed women to dress up without looking too flashy or taking resources away from the war effort.
In the years that followed, black dresses remained in style for a variety of reasons. The film industry had a huge impact on popular fashion trends, and as technicolor films became the norm, directors relied on actresses wearing black dresses so that the color of their clothing wouldn’t become distorted on screen. Eventually, Hollywood’s onscreen “Femme Fatales” were frequently dressed in Little Black Dresses to symbolize their mysterious allure.
A Notable Resurgence in Popularity
While fashion trends changed greatly during the post-war era, the Little Black Dress remained a staple item that was somehow “above” fleeting, popular trends. Although the Little Black Dress never truly went out of style, it had a notable resurgence in popularity during the 1990s. The 1980’s was an era full of vibrant, contrived, high-concept designs. Fashion in the 1990s rejected this idea and reverted back to simple, streamlined silhouettes. Suddenly, Little Black Dresses were frequently photographed on celebrities and supermodels, which revitalized the idea and introduced the concept to a new generation of fashionistas.
In the 2000’s, the Little Black Dress is still a symbol of professionalism and poise. Celebrated style icons from Rihanna to Meghan Markle have made appearances in the iconic garment, assuring us that this statement-making style is as relevant as ever. The world has changed in many, many ways since Coco Chanel opened her flagship boutique, but her impact on fashion remains steadfast. More than just a dress, the concept of the “Little Black Dress” inspires confidence in women everywhere and will surely live on for centuries to come.
The World’s Most Iconic LBD’s
While Little Black Dresses are seemingly everywhere, there are a few that are simply iconic. These LBD’s – and the legendary women who wore them – are ones that have gone down in history.
Betty Boop’s Flirty Cocktail Dress
Designed after silver screen actress Clara Bow, Betty Boop was a coquettish cartoon that made a splash during the 1920s and 1930s. Her surprising sex appeal was revolutionary during the Jazz Age, as she was essentially a caricature of flappers and their progressive ideals.
Wearing a Little Black Dress, Betty Boop captured everyone’s attention and became a symbol of free spirited women during the Roaring Twenties. Eventually, morality codes forced the character to evolve into a demure housewife. Unfortunately, her LBD disappeared when she made the change to a more “respectable” woman.
Edith Piaf’s Signature Styles
French songstress Edith Piaf is one of the nation’s most iconic and influential stars. Her songs and ballads were popular worldwide, and she captured the hearts of the French people. At the beginning of her career, the petite singer was encouraged by her agent to wear black dresses to appear taller and more confident on stage. Black dresses became her signature and she wore a Little Black Dress in every single public appearance she ever made.
Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy Gown
Second only to Chanel’s original style, most iconic black dress in pop culture history was the black sheath dress that Audrey Hepburn wore in the opening scene of the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Although designed by fashion house Givenchy, her outfit borrowed heavily from the French designer’s original innovative style. In the film, the dress is also paired with understated accessories, including strands of pearls.
Once again, this black dress served as a symbol of glamour and elegance. Audrey Hepburn’s own innocent allure and understated sense of style were enhanced by her character’s Little Black Dress. To this day, the most popular images of the actress are of her adorned in the black dress and pearls that she wore in the film.
Victoria Beckham’s Spicy Mini
Before she was a fashion designer and international celebrity, Victoria Beckham was a part of the hugely popular singing group “The Spice Girls” in the late 1990s. Her alter-ego “Posh Spice” was known for her signature sexuality, blunt bob haircut, and sleek, simple black mini dress. The sensational singing group was hugely popular worldwide, and Posh Spice’s Little Black Dress once again made the style relevant to a new generation of girls and women everywhere.
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