You've been invited to a party last minute and you've no idea what your going to wear. You go to your closet, with a mild sense of panic rising, maybe, your thinking 'I just wont go' then you spot it, your fail safe dress. The one you wear, when you just cant think of anything else, the one you wear when you feel crap about yourself, the one you always feel great in. Its a little black dress, isn't it? Of course it is.
Truth be told, I have a closet full of lbd's. Yes, perhaps, I do favour buying black clothing above other colours, but, in reality, ask any woman whether she has a few lbd's and I can guarantee you she will respond with a yes. There is something so classic, so beautiful and elegant about a black dress, it doesn't matter whether you bought it 20 years ago or last week, new or vintage, its a timeless addition to any wardrobe.
So when did the lbd become so popular? There was a time when wearing black was restricted to members of the clergy and people in mourning. If someone close to you or your family had passed away it was common tradition to be seen only in black for a year or longer. It was also considered highly inappropriate to wear the colour black at any other time. (It makes me think in particular,of Scarlett O'Hara, in Gone with the Wind, who absolutely hated her own mourning attire) However, due to the extreme amount of fatalities caused by the first world war, which was quickly followed by 1918 flu pandemic (killing another estimated 75 million) the sight of women in black became the norm and was no longer considered offensive.
Fast forward yourself another couple of years, to the grand old city of Paris, where the world famous couture houses of the day were just getting started. In one of these houses a woman was about to design a break-through item in fashion, it was 1926, and Vogue magazine would quickly pronounce it to be the 'ford' of dresses, it was of course created by the mastermind behind the Chanel empire Gabrielle Bonheur 'Coco' Chanel.
The little black dress was first worn by intellectuals, artists and higher society women, but it's popularity quickly spread across the sea to the Americans, who were eager to be apart of the latest fashions from Paris. By the time the mid 1930's had arrived, an lbd was a solid feature in every single designers collection. The arrival of WWII did not slow down the little black dress.(although it did close down several fashion houses for a number of years including Chanel) Due to the rationing and shortage of materials, many women ended up adjusting the dresses they already owned, often dying them black once the colours had faded. It was both practical and courteous as wearing black was seen as a sign of respect to those at war.
If the war didn't slow down the popularity of the lbd, nothing would and its popularity continued to grow through out the next few decades, perhaps, arriving at its pinnacle in the 1960s, due to the overwhelming amount of lbd's seen on models and film stars, both on and off screen. In 1961 Yves St. Laurent claimed that “Black is the colour for every hour of the day”-and indeed it was.
By the 1980's Karl Lagerfeld had joined Chanel and as a nod to the famous 'ford' dress he ended every show with his favourite model, Ines de la Fressange wearing an lbd. Azzedeine Alaia, Thierry Mugler, and John Paul Gaultier were the newbies in fashion and all featured several lbds in their collection, although I believe Alaia's to be the most desired black dress to own, as he had been christened the 'king of cling” and his lbd's were often worn on women like Madonna, Naomi Campbell and even Grace Jones.
There are many famous 'iconic' images of women in an lbd. The most obvious one that springs to my mind is Audrey Hepburn, wearing Givenchy, in Breakfast at Tiffany's, quickly followed by Elizabeth Hurley in 'that' Versace dress. I also remember Princess Diana's famous lbd moment, the one that made the headlines not long after her split from Charles, (often called her break up dress) designed by Christina Stambolian. The little black dress is simple, classic, and easy to wear. The cut, the design, and type of fabric is all down to personal choice, but I can guarantee that there is 1 (or4) in every woman's wardrobe. The one she runs to when she's in a hurry, when she feels bad in everything else, and when she wants to look fabulous.
Find out more about fashion history at my vintage blog.