One is never over-dressed or underdressed with a Little Black Dress. – Karl Lagerfeld
It’s happened to me. It’s happened to you. Open the door of your wardrobe full of clothing yet there is nothing to wear. A moment of panic arises, however all thoughts are put to ease when your eyes lock on your Little Black Dress. Time and time again, it is there for you – a timeless and effortless relationship. But little do we know of the role the colour black has played, especially in the form of the little black dress. Not only do we know the little black dress to have a strong and interesting history, but a crucial influence on the development of the fashion world.
Karl Lagerfeld’s belief in the significance of the colour black has become the mantra of many women around the world. German-born fashion designer, photographer and artist, Lagerfeld is largely known as the head designer and creative director for renowned fashion house, Chanel. He aspires to share his passion for the colour black – he’s the guy you’ll often see dressed in a sharply cut black suit – creating idyllic little black dresses for women around the world to enjoy.
Prior to the 1920’s, the wearing of black was associated with mourning. The first sign of this was Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (1396-1467) when he wore black after his father was murdered by the French in 1419. During this period, most courtiers wore brightly coloured clothing. According to John Harvey, author of Men in Black, Phillip’s lavish, black velvet gown looked “not only serious, but elegant”. Similarly, Catherine de Medici, queen of France during the Renaissance era, became a widow in 1559 and lived in black attire.
The Victorian and Edwardian Eras saw that women were expected to wear black for several aspects of the mourning period. During the first year of mourning, women were expected to wear plain black clothing with no decoration. For the nine months preceding, women were allowed to wear black silk, this time with a few decorations. By the turn of the 20th century and the outbreak of World War One, the high level of death made it more acceptable and common for women to be seen in public wearing black
Eventually, in 1926, Gabrielle Coco Chanel – iconic French fashion designer and founder of Chanel – introduced the concept of the little black dress. Coco Chanel published a calf-length, straight and slightly decorated style, with three diagonal lines, which was featured in American Vogue. Vogue claimed that the “little black dress would become a sort of uniform for women of taste” – as they called it “Chanel’s Ford”, associating it to Henry Ford’s Model T – a revolution in the automobile market.
Amy Edelman, author of The Little Black Dress described Coco’s design as “simple and accessible for women of all social classes.” From this moment on, the little black dress phenomenon has evolved.
On February 12th, 1947, Dior launched their “New Look” collection with the little black dress being the success of the show. Due to the synthetic fibers available after the launch of Dior’s new campaign, the little black dress was in demand due to the style being affordable for everyone.
The most iconic moment in the little black dress’ history took place in 1961 when Audrey Hepburn became the face of the little black dress. Her role in the romantic comedy Breakfast at Tiffany’s expanded the craze, as Hubert de Givenchy reinvented the dress. This created more of a demand for the stylish, simple and elegant garment. In recent years, Hubert de Givenchy’s design was sold in 2006 to an anonymous buyer for an incredible GBP£410,000 (AUD$608,900).
During the 1980’s Donna Karen, designer and creator of DKNY, directed her line on the little black dress’ practical virtues to create a line for iconic, successful working women – during which, she highlighted that black was not only to be worn during the evening but could be flaunted in daylight.
Karen showed the world that the colour black was not only stylish and fashionable but hides the ten pounds the camera tends to add.
In the winter of 2001-2002, Dutch conceptualist Viktor & Rolf produced one of the most striking black collections yet, said Valerie Steele, author of The Black Dress. All the runway models were put in black make-up which, similar to Chanel’s 1926 little black dress, resulted in great controversy. Many people affiliated the show to racist history where white performers wore black face make-up. Due to the controversy, the show is a memorable event in the history of the little black dress.
Black is powerful. The little black dress shows a woman has power. Designers today, who want to play with limitations and boundaries of fashion, understand the power of black.
To this day, the little black dress has become an essential piece of every woman’s wardrobe. Like Mr. Lagerfeld said, the little black dress forms the perfect outfit because it can be dressed up, or simply dressed down. The Little Black Dress is here to stay.