Hands up who thinks the little black dress was first created by Hubert de Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Well, it turns out you’re in need of a fashion history lesson because the LBD (Little Black Dress) is a little older than that…
— “Chanel invented LBD after the death of her boyfriend ‘Boy’ Capel. Capel fully financed Chanel’s first shops and his own clothing style, notably his blazers, inspired her creation of the Chanel look. Their relationship lasted nine years… even after Capel married he continued his affair with Chanel until his death in late 1919. At Christmas the following year, 1919. Capel was riding in the back of his chauffeured Rolls-Royce en route from Paris to Cannes to see Chanel for the holiday when a tire burst suddenly. ‘His death was a terrible blow to me,’ she said later. ‘I lost everything when I lost Capel He left a void in me that the years have not filled. ’ In the 1920s she introduced the Little Black Dress to fashion…”
Coco Chanel may have designed the first Little Black Dress, but women had been wearing black garments for decades before the French fashionista ever make her mark. Black dresses were incredibly prominent during the Victorian Era and were worn with a certain amount of frequency. Widowed women were expected to wear black for years after their husbands had passed away as a sign of mourning for their beloved. When Queen Victoria’s husband Albert died in 1861, she reportedly wore black dresses for the next forty years as a visible display of her sadness.
However, our contemporary version of the cocktail dress first came into fashion in the 1920s, thanks to a certain Parisian designer named Coco Chanel. Coco Chanel and the LBD. While Coco Chanel is credited with designing a host of iconic garments, there is one singular style that ended up changing the face of fashion forever. Among many other important achievements, the fabulous French couture designer is credited with creating the very first Little Black Dress. Ever since Chanel debuted her statement-making style, women in virtually every generation have adopted the idea that no wardrobe is truly complete without the perfect Little Black Dress.
In 1926, Vogue published a drawing of a simple black dress in crêpe de Chine. It had long narrow sleeves and was accessorized with a string of pearls. The publication dubbed it ‘Chanel’s Ford’, in other words, it was simple and accessible to women of all classes.
What becomes ‘a sort of uniform for all women of taste’. Well, that was one spot-on prediction for sure.
Coco Chanel in 1935. Credit: Rex Features
Chanel later said, ‘I imposed black; it’s still going strong today, for black wipes out everything else around.’ Her timing was of course, perfect. Because the dress was released in the Great Depression era, where simple and affordable was key. Later, during the war, textiles and fabrics were rationed, and the simple black dress remained the outfit of choice, as you could be elegant without breaking the bank. Black is associated with power, fear, mystery, strength, authority, elegance, formality, death, evil, and aggression, authority, rebellion, and sophistication. Black is required for all other colors to have depth and variation of hue. The black color is the absence of color.
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.
Black dresses were also typically worn by the working class during the 19th century. Maids, housekeepers, and cleaning women frequently had black dresses as uniforms because the dark color would hide dirt and other unsightly stains. While there was nothing “little” about the black dresses worn during this era, it is safe to say that historically the black dress was associated with mourning, poverty, and other generally negative connotations.
Aside from being exceptionally fabulous, there are other historical reasons that the Little Black Dress became a global sensation. Chanel’s Little Black Dress was introduced just as The Great Depression was roaring to life. Suddenly, even wealthy women were seeking a look that was beautiful and elegant, but also affordable. A plain black evening dress would provide the perfect fit and allow women from all classes and incomes to have an elegant garment in their fashion repertoire.
Following the Great Depression, the world was thrown into the second World War. During this time, everyone’s purse strings were tightened, as any extra money and rations were donated to the war effort. Luxurious fabrics like silk were incredibly rare and were luxury items that were not accessible (or appropriate) for everyday women to wear. Simple black fabrics, however, were plentiful. Once again, Little Black Dresses allowed women to dress up without looking too flashy or taking resources away from the war effort.
In the years that followed, black dresses remained in style for a variety of reasons. The film industry had a huge impact on popular fashion trends, and as technicolor films became the norm, directors relied on actresses wearing black dresses so that the color of their clothing wouldn’t become distorted on screen. Eventually, Hollywood’s onscreen “Femme Fatales” were frequently dressed in Little Black Dresses to symbolize their mysterious allure.
While Little Black Dresses are seemingly everywhere, there are a few that are simply iconic. These LBD’s – and the legendary women who wore them – are ones that have gone down in history. Over the years, this garment has become just as much a state of mind as it is an actual garment. The simple and elegant look is meant to highlight a woman’s natural beauty without ever detracting from her poise or sophistication. There have been several variations on the trend since Coco’s premier style, but it’s incredibly clear that the LBD isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
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