How a simple idea for austerity chic became a must-have fashion item for the 21st century
Christmas party season is just around the corner, but what to wear?
There’s one obvious answer. Simple, versatile and affordable, the little black dress (LBD) is an essential in any woman’s wardrobe. The original timeless design, widely credited to French Coco Chanel, was intended to be somewhat utilitarian: a long-lasting fashion piece that could be dressed up or down depending on the occasion. Vogue described it as “Chanel’s Ford”, because of its simplicity, affordability and almost uniform-like quality.
Did I hear you say affordable?
Well, in theory. Earlier this year Sotheby’s auctioned off 140 LBDs in an event dubbed Les Petites Robes Noires, where some of the more expensive pieces fetched over €20,000. The collection included vintage dresses and a number of classics from Givenchy, Hermès and Chanel herself. But arguably the reason the dress took off when it did was because it provided a stylish yet attainable outfit for the Depression era and post-war period.
So black has always been in fashion?
Not quite. When Vogue described the dress as a “uniform for all women of taste” it was perhaps more on-point than it realised. Simple black dresses had been the uniform of working-class women – particularly household staff – for many years before Chanel co-opted it as a fashion statement.
When did things change?
One of Chanel’s first LBDs was worn in 1912, but the style really took of when Vogue published a sketch by the designer in 1926. Before that a black dress was considered a sign of mourning in the higher echelons of society. The dress upset couturier Paul Poiret so much that he asked Chanel exactly what she was mourning for. Her reply? “For you.”
Some male fashion journalists were also unappreciative of its simple look. One reporter complained of “no more bosom, no more stomach [and] no more rump”, and said feminine fashion of the decade would be “baptized to lop off everything”.
It’s probably for the best these criticisms went unheeded.
Indeed, otherwise the world may have missed out on one of the most iconic fashion looks of the century. As Wallis Simpson, the American socialite whose marriage to King Edward VIII caused a constitutional crisis, put it: “When a little black dress is right, there is nothing else to wear in its place.”
How do I look?
Givenchy’s iconic LBD, worn by Audrey Hepburn in the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is seen as the definitive LBD and, teamed with pearls, defined Hepburn’s style. In 2006, one of three versions linked to the 1961 film was auctioned – and sold for £467,200.