A Brief History of the Little Black Dress

Last month, we looked at timeless dress styles to compliment your figure. Whilst the peplum dress also got an honourable mention, we talked about two variations of that time-honoured classic: the little black dress. Somehow it’s hard to get away from it, which got us thinking: how long have people been wearing the little black dress? What can we discover from its history and traditions?

The silhouette of the little black dress may have changed over time, as have the contexts in which women have worn it, but the idea of the little black dress has grown - not suffered - by this constant evolution. We think the most important aspects of the LBD have never changed too much, surviving since its earliest origins in Paris between the two world wars.

 

Coco Chanel’s little black dress and the French Third Republic

The modern popular history of the little black dress starts with Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel: a girl born into poverty and sent to an orphanage at the age of twelve when her mother died from bronchitis. Her family’s poverty was hardly uncommon in fin de siècle France. Indeed, it was common, particularly in rural areas like Chanel’s hometown of Saumur, in the Maine-et-Loire.

After flirting with the idea of a stage career, Chanel purchased a large building on the 31 rue Cambon, which was situated in one of the most fashionable areas of Paris. By 1921, she had commenced selling assorted clothing, hats and other accessories, before later expanding to offer a range of jewellery and fragrances. By 1927, Chanel had purchased four more properties on the same street and knocked the walls through. Now she had enough space for her dream to breathe. It was the LBD that would ultimately give her boutique its distinctive brand identity.

After spending a few years in Switzerland after 1945, it was the little black dress that Chanel presented to Paris as a gift, encouraging women to value themselves again. Not only did French women discover the dignity that had been lost when their country had been invaded - they discovered a distinctively new identity founded on the principle of understated elegance. The little black dress was designed, from the very beginning, to work on the principle of simplicity.

Coco Chanel never invented the concept of the little black dress as such, because of course, similar forms had been circulating in the nineteenth century. But, it was the particular sense of personal pride and feminine identity with which she imbued it that established the little black dress as the centrepiece of her empire. As early as 1925, American Vogue observed that the LBD would eventually attain the status of uniform, something any self-respecting woman would own or want to own. In Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, Justine Picardie describes Chanel’s first little black dress as “an apparently simple yet elegant sheath, in black crêpe de Chine, with long, narrow sleeves, [to be] worn with a string of white pearls”.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s - the novella (1958) and the film (1961).

By the end of the late 1950s and the American consumer revolution which saw every home kitted out with a refrigerator and a television set, the image of Coco Chanel was already very familiar in Manhattan. The writer Truman Capote wrote a novella in 1958 that was thought to encapsulate the new feminine sense of power and style in America. It would only take a few more years before women were allowed to open bank accounts without needing sponsorship by a man. The novella was Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

In Capote’s novella, the main character Holly Golightly becomes acquainted with the book’s unnamed narrator. Because Holly (who’s aged between eighteen and nineteen) is a country girl who’s somehow managed to enter the New York café scene, she doesn’t have a job and makes her living socialising with wealthy men who can afford to whisk her away to expensive clubs and restaurants. She doesn’t in any sense need a man, however. Holly is well known in Manhattan because she has a tendency to say whatever’s on her mind, without much care for who’s listening. She’s demure, sexy and stylish and, ultimately, she doesn’t need anyone.

Eventually, though, she does hope she’ll marry one of these men. What’s her secret weapon? You guessed it: the “American geisha” wears a little black dress. What else would she wear? The LBD is her route through what might seem an uncertain, dependent future. If Holly’s uncertain, though, she’s not showing it - she’s wearing her little black dress as if her life depends on it. And the men around her can only stand around and pretend not to stare at her. Whatever might happen to Holly Golightly and America, she’ll never lose her poker face.

In 1961 Blake Edwards took Capote’s novella and turned it into a film of the same name. By casting the eponymous British actress Audrey Hepburn, who by then was already a star from her turns in such films as Sabrina (1954) and The Nun’s Story (1959), Edwards made an iconic image of the woman in the little black dress. From then on, the LBD was as much the “Audrey Hepburn dress” as it was the “Coco Chanel dress” and it was everywhere that mattered. The woman wearing the Audrey Hepburn dress became part of a classic dynasty.

It was Audrey Hepburn who generations of women following after would think about when they brought their first special little black dress, in the process creating an entrenched image and identity for themselves which borrowed just a little bit from the history and traditions of the little black dress. Just enough to give them their first push into maturity, elegance and style. Sure enough, women are still wearing the LBD with the same confidence and style to this day.

The five biggest sightings of the little black dress in the last twenty years.

  1. In 1994, Diana Princess of Wales stepped out in a little black dress that some, at the time, called her “revenge dress”. This was shortly after the news of her husband’s affair had come out in the press.
  2. In 1999, at the height of her fame with the TV-show Ally McBeal, Calista Flockhart stepped out on the red carpet at the Emmy Awards in a little black dress. Her show won three awards that year, with Flockhart being nominated for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series. She was nominated again the year after, again coming out onto the red carpet in the same little black dress recalling the lowered hems and luxurious skirts of Manhattan’s “New Look”.
  3. In 2002, the British supermodel Kate Moss was rarely seen in anything except a little black dress. The minimalist style of the little black dress is now associated with Moss.
  4. In 2009, the year after her husband was elected President of the United States of America, Michelle Obama began wearing a little black dress to official state functions.
  5. The German supermodel Heidi Klum wore a little black dress to the Emmy Awards in 2010. For the next year, the London fashion press talked almost nothing else besides that little black dress.

To engage with the tradition and history of the little black dress in a way that prioritises quality over quantity, which was what Coco Chanel always intended from the beginning, check out Duchess London. All Duchess London clothes are made from the finest fabrics and are produced in the UK - so your dress will be both responsible and stylish.

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