This issue, fashion historian Scott William Schiavone, takes a look at the staple of every woman’s wardrobe – the little black dress…
Recently, I attended the International Committee of Museums (ICOM) Costume conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. The theme of the conference was ‘All the Colours of Black’ and took place at National Museums Scotland where their current exhibition ‘Beyond the Little Black Dress’ is open until 29th October 2023.
This got me thinking about this simple garment and how it has now become a ubiquitous item, found in the wardrobes of many women. In this article, we will explore the history of the little black dress, more commonly known in popular culture as the LBD and how this humble garment became an iconic fashion staple.
The LBD is an iconic piece that transcends trends, defies time, and epitomises sophistication. This timeless piece has transcended generations and trends, becoming a symbol of elegance and sophistication.
This unassuming garment has a rich history dating back nearly a century, and its story is a testament to its enduring allure. Before the twentieth century, black was most commonly worn for mourning but a convenient turning point came in the 1920s with the introduction of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s little black dress.
Chanel recognised the need for a versatile, elegant, and affordable dress that could be worn by women from all walks of life. Chanel’s design featured clean lines, minimalistic silhouettes, and a focus on comfort, a stark departure from the restrictive corsets and ornate gowns of the previous century. Chanel believed that black was not just a colour but a statement of style and independence for women.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Parisian couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga, whose favourite colour was black, also made significant contributions to the LBD’s evolution. Balenciaga was a visionary, known for his innovative designs and impeccable craftsmanship.
Balenciaga’s LBDs were characterised by their architectural precision and attention to detail. He often incorporated dramatic silhouettes and sculptural elements, challenging conventional notions of what a black dress could be. Balenciaga’s designs showcased the potential of the LBD to be both a statement piece and a symbol of understated elegance.
The Harris in Preston is extremely lucky to have a LBD designed by Balenciaga’s sister label EISA from the 1950s. The simple shape of the dress is enhanced with a skirt that is pleated and moves with the wearer, exemplifying Balenciaga’s signature for simple lines and elegant dressing.
Furthermore, the LBD was engrained into popular culture in 1961 when the actress Audrey Hepburn wore a LBD, designed by Hubert de Givenchy, in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Her portrayal of the charming and enigmatic Holly Golightly gave the LBD iconic status.
The dress was sleeveless and featured a slim silhouette, creating a look that was both elegant and effortlessly chic. By the end of the 1960s, the LBD turned it into a must-have item in every woman’s wardrobe.
In the 21st century, the LBD remains as relevant as ever. It has become a symbol of empowerment and versatility, adapting to fit various occasions, from business meetings to cocktail parties and weddings.
The enduring appeal of the LBD can be attributed to its universal ability to make women feel confident and glamorous. It is a canvas upon which individual style can shine, allowing women to accessorise and personalise their look.
In conclusion, the little black dress has a storied history that has cemented its place in fashion history. From its groundbreaking introduction by Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel to its iconic moments on the silver screen, the LBD has evolved and adapted while maintaining its core essence of timelessness and sophistication.
As fashion continues to evolve, one thing remains certain: the little black dress will always have a special place in our hearts and wardrobes.
Scott William Schiavone is a fashion historian and Curator of Decorative Art at The Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston. Scott has worked with fashion and textile collections in museums across the UK. Scott has his own YouTube channel, Fashion &… which has more than 5,200 subscribers and is an accredited lecturer for The Arts Society.