The surprising history of the little black dress

The surprising history of the little black dress

Shannon Meyer on the history of the slimming, safe, versatile wardrobe staple




By Shannon Meyer

The adjective “little” is never less diminutive than when placed in front of “black dress.” Instantly a sombre item of female clothing is elevated to a genre—a slimming, safe, versatile wardrobe staple. This pictorial history spanning 150 years, the catalogue accompanying a Missouri History Museum exhibit, traces the LBD, as it’s been dubbed, from Victorian mourning attire (not exactly what we regard as LBD) to modern wedding dress. The text, by senior curator Shannon Meyer, reinforces the fact that what we wear is governed by larger social and economic forces; it wasn’t until the death count of the First World War made grief a collective enterprise that black was popular in everyday clothing, Meyer notes. And while the late 19th century saw a trend to black evening wear, it took the influential Coco Chanel’s revolutionary line of black dresses to transform an item worn by shopkeepers and maids into the “uniform of the stylish woman” in the 1920s.

The complexity of black as clothing colour is explored—from denoting wealth in the 16th and 17th centuries to its resurrection as the colour of death and despair in the 19th, when its “impure connotations” made it inappropriate for young women. (British designer Mary Quant made the non-colour popular among young women in the 1960s.) Accompanying images illustrate both the evolution and constancy of female attire. Some items could be worn today—a Mainbocher bias cut crepe evening dress with spaghetti straps from 1933, a 1935 chiffon Chanel evening dress. The enterprise peters out by end of the 20th century; Halston is the only influential designer represented. An unremarkable empire waist dress by Kimora Lee Simmons and Jetsonesque number by local St. Louis designer Michael Drummond represent the 21st.

One longs for a reminder of the iconic LBDs in art and entertainment—John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, Audrey Hepburn’s sheath in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Liz Hurley’s safety-pinned Versace. Of course, more recently, the red carpet and social media have rendered a once-foolproof choice boring; the little black dress is eclipsed by prints and hues that pop on Instagram. This is a peacock moment, rendering the LBD a sign of surrender, a fashion cop-out.