When you look into your closet, you may most likely see certain pieces that you never throw away even after you’ve bought batches of clothes and phased them out of your life. There’s your favorite jeans, favorite t-shirt, and your versatile little black dress. The little black dress (a.k.a. LBD) is an essential part of the wardrobe since then until now.
It’s a must-have for any woman since it can be dressed up or down according to the occasion. The shade alone is a fashion constant can never go wrong. It can make you feel seductive or demure, glamorous or discreet, chic or austere, simple or stylish.
But before the LBD was a fashion staple, black was strictly reserved for mourning and religious attire only. Before the 1920s, wearing a black dress when you’re not mourning was distasteful as mourning dresses were symbolic. During the Victorian era, grieving widows were expected to wear black dresses and attire for at least two years.
This tradition changed because of style icon Coco Chanel. In 1926, she published a photo of a short, simple black dress in American Vogue. This was a calf-length, straight, simple yet elegant sheath decorated by few diagonal lines. This dress was known as the “Ford” dress, because like the latest car model that time – the Ford T – it was made accessible for women of every social classes. It was said to be “sort of a uniform of all women of taste.” Other designs made by Chanel at the time was made to reinvent black and make a new symbolism out of it besides mourning, such as to make it the uniform of the chic, high-class and wealthy.
LBD continued to be popular throughout the Great Depression, because it’s simple and economical, yet a woman can look glamorous and elegant even without spending a lot of money on an outfit. This era brought softer feminine cuts. Hollywood also popularized the little black dress since Technicolor films were more popular. Back then, other dress colors can clash with the other colors on screen during the coloring process.
During the Second World War, this style continued to be of use due to the widespread rationing of textiles, and as part of the common uniform for civilian women entering the workforce. Designers at that time like Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, Lanvin, Jacques Fath and Balmain embraced the versatility and purity of the little black dress, each designing their own versions so that women everywhere can be stylish every time they wear an LBD.
The conservative 1950’s era saw the rise of Dior’s “New Look” that returned the LBD into a uniform and a style symbol of the dangerous woman. Femme fatales and fallen women characters in Hollywood movies are often portrayed wearing black halter-style dresses, and more conservative dresses are worn by women with more wholesome roles. When synthetic fibers were made widely available in different designs, more styles of the LBD emerged. Dior also narrowed the skirts and produced dresses with sleek sheaths, which was one of the popular shapes that dominated the ‘50s.
During the 1960s, Audrey Hepburn wore an iconic, long, simple black sheath dress by Givenchy in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This is perhaps the most famous LBD in Hollywood history and this epitomized the standard of wearing LBDs with pearls.
The younger “mod” generation of the ‘60s shifted to waistless sheath dresses with shorter lengths. In general, they preferred a miniskirt version of their dress, so designers catered to the youth. They even shortened the skirts even more and created cutouts and slits to the bodice or skirt of the dress. During the decade, the best accessory to the clean-lined little black dress was Vidal Sassoon’s five-point haircut, which was popularized by Grace Coddington when it appeared in American Vogue.
The 1970s saw the decline of the little black dress as hippies opted for pants, long maxi skirts and bell bottoms. But in Paris, LBD never stopped being glamorous, as Yves Saint Laurent continued to design plenty of black dresses. Luxury American designer Halston brought backless dresses with plunging necklines, thigh high slits, and disco-draped jersey styles. The 70’s also brought us the trendy and chic wrap dresses first made by Diane Von Furstenberg, another American designer.
During the 1980s, the most fashionable LBD was the designs of Azzedine Alaia. He fixated on the little black dress and his techniques on the fit and cut of the little black dress is still used until today. The Alaia LBD is lovely and lady-like, which is great when paired with either dressy pumps or sexy high-heeled boots.
Casual fabrics become popular, such as knits, and it’s incorporated into little black dresses of the era. Also, since fitness was a concern for a lot of women at that time, the new designs of LBD also included peplums.
The 1990s challenged the look of feminine LBD by combining it with combat boots, giving it a grunge look while the dress remains simple in fabric material and style. Famous women also loved stunning the world by wearing the LBD notoriously. Princess Diana wore a low-cut black dress in her public debut as Prince Charles’ fiancé, calling it the “revenge dress.” Elizabeth Hurley wore Versace’s safety-pin LBD featuring perfectly placed cutouts and golden Versace safety pins, gaining much attention due to a scandalous variation of the fashion standard and its very low neckline.
Today, the LBD fashion mostly show everything old is new again, as most LBD styles of the past are still fashionable until today.
Also, it would be hard to imagine a glamorous woman’s closet without at least one trusty little black dress. It’s versatile, it’s affordable, and it’s everywhere. Many fashion trends come and go but the little black dress is one of the few constants in this world.