A little black dress is an evening or cocktail dress, cut simply and often quite short. Fashion historians ascribe the origins of the little black dress to the 1920s designs of Coco Chanel and Jean Patou intended to be long-lasting, versatile, affordable, accessible to the widest market possible and in a neutral colour. Its ubiquity is such that it is often simply referred to as the "LBD". The "little black dress" is considered essential to a complete wardrobe by many women and fashion observers, who believe it a "rule of fashion" that every woman should own a simple, elegant black dress that can be dressed up or down depending on the occasion: for example, worn with a jacket and pumps for daytime business wear or with more ornate jewelry and accessories for evening. Because it is meant to be a staple of the wardrobe for a number of years, the style of the little black dress ideally should be as simple as possible: a short black dress that is too clearly part of a trend would not qualify because it would soon appear dated. Perhaps more than any other piece of clothing, the little black dress is, women have been told, the essential, the one that will take you practically anywhere. And perhaps more than any other designer, Coco Chanel was the one who made it ubiquitous. She did not invent the concept, of course, but according to Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life (by Justine Picardine, $40, amazon.com), “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.…” Contrast that description with these more elaborate dresses from 1925.
Prior to the 1920s, black was usually reserved for mourning (something the Victorians took quite seriously) and considered highly inappropriate to wear in normal, day-to-day life. The rise of this wardrobe staple was primed by several factors. Due to World War I and severe outbreaks of the Spanish Flu, seeing women in mourning, wearing all black in public, became a common sight. Tastes were also changing toward simple and more economical fashions, something that’s common during times of war, uncertainty, and financial distress. In 1926, Vogue became the first magazine to publish a drawing of a little black dress, designed by Coco Chanel. The fashion magazine predicted that this would, in the future, become a uniform for women of all ages and social classes. They even called the dress “Chanel’s Ford,” drawing parallels to the mainstream appeal of Ford’s Model T car. In “Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life,” Justine Picardine described this first LBD as “a simple yet elegant sheath, in black crêpe de Chine, with long, narrow sleeves, worn with a string of white pearls.” In 1961, the little black dress finally got its big Hollywood moment. The exquisite LBD designed by Hubert de Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” came to symbolize the epitome of chic, in a film that has influenced fashion more than most. “A little black dress allows the wearer to accentuate her physical gifts,” says Vogue Editor-at-Large Andre Leon Talley. You can thank Madame Chanel for daring to break away from convention to bring us this perfectly timeless wardrobe staple.
Look into your closet. What's in there that you'd never take out -- never throw away in a million years? Chances are it's a few select items: a vintage handbag your grandmother gave you, your favorite jeans, and a little black dress. The little black dress (aka LBD) may be an essential part of any woman's wardrobe now, but it certainly hasn't always been that way.
Before the 1920s, wearing the color black was strictly reserved for times of mourning. It was considered distasteful to wear it otherwise,...
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