The Little Black Dress

Since Chanel introduced the "little black dress" in 1926, it has become the epitome of chic. Her first LBD was a slash-necked, short silk dress with only diagonal pin-tucks as decoration. American Vogue called it the "Ford." Like Henry Ford’s Model-T car, the LBD was an instant hit, widely available, though only in black. Chanel believed fashion should be functional as well as chic. Radically simple, her LBD was designed not to show stains and to fit every woman. It was meant as the fashion ideal: a perfectly simple, yet sexy object.

Hepburn as Sabrina

To modern eyes, Chanel's original LDB may seem rather plain, perhaps too simple, at least compared to the glamorous Givenchy LDB (above) worn by Audrey Hepburn in the 1954 film Sabrina (Paramount Pictures). Until she was seventeen in 1900, Gabrielle Chanel was educated at a convent orphanage run by nuns. It does not take a psychologist to see in Chanel's revolutionary LBD concept a subconscious affinity for the "uniform" (the nun's habit) worn by the women who had raised the penniless provincial girl.

As early as 1915, Coco Chanel envisioned the LDB as the new uniform for women for afternoon and evening wear. Though apparently quite simple, these dresses showed masterful cut and proportion. She used traditional elegant materials like lace, tulle, and soft weightless silks in a newly tailored way. The LBD made women wearing anything else seem overdressed.

One time at an opera gala, Chanel saw many women in the brilliant, clashing colors of Paul Poiret's new dawn. From that day Chanel, the champion of beige and neutrals, was determined to change the fashion landscape. She rejected the accusation that she was trying to impose the style of the working girl on haute couture by creating the "deluxe poor look."

By the end of the 1920s, Chanel had triumphed. Although never a brilliant designer, she was a fashion visionary, who could intuit the needs and desires of stylish women. Chanel was the first couturier to understand the most profound fashion change of the century—in the clothes she wore daily, a woman no longer had to create the impression of great wealth. Vogue summed up the designer's impact: "Chanel's silhouette, staying close to the lines of the uncorseted figure, begins to make the skirts of Lanvin look old-fashioned and Poiret too theatrical."

Paul Poiret, before WWI The King of Fashion (the title of his autobiography), spent his final years in decline and debt, having been surpassed by modernist designers like Coco Chanel. She and Poiret had a chance encounter on a Paris street in 1928. Noticing that Chanel was wearing all black, Poiret inquired, "For whom, Madame, do you mourn?" To which Chanel replied, "For you, Monsieur."

Before the Little Black Dress came the black dress. Although I use the phrase "the color black," it is technically not a color at all but rather the absence of any color (red, green, blue). Nevertheless, to the human eye, black is not merely achromatic. In the palette of major painters and clothing designers, black became a "color" in its own right.

Because of the great wealth derived from its American Empire, Spain dominated Europe in the 16th century politically and culturally. From 1550 to 1600, the severe fashions of the Spanish court under Philip II reigned supreme everywhere except in France. Black garments were worn for the most formal occasions. To this solemn color, there adhered a certain austere and dignified beauty that was continually rediscovered over the following centuries.

Painting played a major role in the rediscovery of black as the essential color of fashion, as the great French painters of the 19th century documented the changing role of black in women's fashion. In the 1820s Eugene Delacroix explored the contradictions of black, using it as a background to create a melancholy mise en scène. His vision of painting as theatre influenced all the arts.

The poets Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire were fascinated by the way fashion and painting influenced each other. Painting took high fashion as a prime subject matter. Major couturiers, for their part, were influenced by how the great French painters handled color and texture in their work.

The painter Edouard Manet's trademark was the particularity of his blacks. His friends recognized that the use of black in his Spanish canvases was a proclamation of modernity, an artistic revanchism that rejected Baudelaire's espousal of colorism. Mallarmé felt the color black perfectly met the requirements of modern dress: "I do not believe it is possible to be otherwise than surprised by the delicious range provided by the blacks..."

Black had long been associated with disaster, mourning, or sanctity. Because this color was embraced as the essential medium for visual reproduction (engravings, prints, and photographs), the ancient fixed role of black was tempered to allow its use in ordinary life. Baudelaire addressed the paradox of wearing a black frock coat for everyday use: "We are all attending one funeral or another."

Borrowing from photography after 1850, painters used black to habituate the viewer to the effects of a meeting of light and texture. Referring to this relationship, Manet noted Leonardo da Vinci's advice to a disciple to closely observe how faces changed at dusk. Likewise, the texture of clothing takes on the role of skin in a painting and thus teaches the painter a lesson.

Manet used clothing (theatrical and bullfight costumes) imported from Spain to understand how to paint black. He found that black fabrics absorbed and reflected light in an unpredictable way, depending on how the surface refracts artificial light. Although light is continually swallowed by achromatic black, it nevertheless attracts and holds the eye of the viewer, whether of clothing or of painting.

Manet was able to mitigate the melancholy of photography's omnipresent black by providing a graduated, textured intensity that makes the colors vibrate. Baudelaire's judgment was on the mark: Manet's work gave a face to fashion. The color black became linked with mystery and elegance.

In 1881 the American painter John Singer Sargent met Madame Gautreau in Paris society. He became fascinated with her languid beauty and her mode of dress, which seemed ahead of her time. She agreed to sit for a portrait (below), which he titled "Madame X" (Metropolitan Museum of Art). The painting, perhaps Sargent's best work, was accepted for the Salon of 1884. To his shock and consternation, the painting became an instant scandal, viewed as salacious because of the sexual suggestiveness of her pose and the revealing nature of the black dress. So often in the history of fashion it has been how a garment is worn that matters most.

Madame X

Likewise, the modern LBD partakes of the chameleon character that black confers. The versatile LBD can be can be dressed up or down. A simple black cocktail dress can be turned into an evening dress with diamond accessories, stilettos, and long gloves; or, when combined with a black suit jacket, demure accessories, and simple pumps, the same dress can be worn for a daytime business meeting.

In 1900 black and mauve were the defining colors of high fashion. White briefly reappeared as the dominant color in women's clothing. Then in 1909 the taste for bold, clashing colors returned when the Ballets Russes brought Orientalism to the West. Black regained dominance in early 1920s. By the late 1920s, the color black—associated with dignity, mystery, and elegance—had regained dominance in women's fashion.

Finally, Coco Chanel's little black dress (1926) became the archetype of black as the color of high fashion. Give the color black much of the credit for the timeless quality of the LBD. Unlike other colors that have their place in the sun for a few years, black is never dated or out of fashion. Black is the color of the moment today as it was in 1560. In December 2006, the best-known version of the LBD, the Givenchy worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, was sold at auction for over $800,000.

The LBD has been a staple for celebrities in the post-WWII period. Think of Julia Roberts in her vintage Valentino on the red carpet. Legendary model Kate Moss has relied most of all on the LBD—backstage; on the red carpet; or for a night on the town. Vintage Textile has sold a sexy LBD to Angelina Jolie. Coco Chanel's "little black dress" of the 1920s is still the epitome of simple elegance.

Copyright © 2007-2014, Linda Ames. All rights reserved.

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