"One is never overdressed or underdressed with a little black dress." - Karl Lagerfeld
One of the most iconic clothing pieces of all time, the little black dress has been a women's wardrobe staple for the past 100 years. In this vintage clothing history guide, we take a look at how this classic dress style has evolved over time. Before the 1920s, black was reserved only for funerals & mourning and it was considered seriously indecent to wear the colour outside of these occasions. All of this changed in 1926 when American Vogue published an illustration of a plain black dress in crêpe de Chine designed by Coco Chanel.
The magazine dubbed it 'Chanel's Ford' as it was simple & accessible to women of all classes. They even managed to accurately predict that the LBD would become a "uniform for all women of taste". The style soon democratised fashion as any woman could afford to look chic. It also marked a significant moment of liberation as the little black dress helped to free women from dictated dress codes & the restrictive, traditional clothing of the previous century.
The little black dress retained its popularity throughout the Great Depression because women desired affordable clothing. It combined elegance with economy which was much needed at the time. As more fashion designers began to make little black dresses, they became a standard staple for simple evening wear. However the gamine silhouette which was popular in the 1920s was replaced with more natural flowing feminine curves. Hollywood's influence on fashion also boosted the success of this style but for more practical reasons. The new Technicolor filming methods often relied on dressing their stars in little black dresses as other colours could appear distorted on camera.
During the early 1940s most women opted for a two-piece skirt suit & not many people could really afford a separate evening gown other than a simple LBD. It even became a popular choice for civilian women entering the workforce. The rationing of fabrics in the 1940s made sure that the 'little' remained in the 'black dress' as austerity design restrictions limited the lengths of women's skirts. Little black dresses allowed women to dress up without looking too flashy or taking resources away from the war effort. After the war, the increased availability of synthetic fabrics such as rayon and nylon broadened the affordability of 1940s womens clothing & more flamboyant silhouettes changed the little black dress to suit the fashion era. What made the LBD so popular was its ease of accessorising. The simple silhouette & neutral black colour made it the perfect foundation for several outfits.
In 1947 Christian Dior debuted his 'New Look' collection which became the classic embodiment of the fifties shape. Rounded shoulders, cinched waists & full skirts gave the LBD a sexy update. Popularised by starlets such as Marilyn Monroe & Grace Kelly, Hollywood femme fatales flocked to wear this alluring new hourglass silhouette, viewed as the perfect dress for on and off-screen style. The rise of the femme fatale meant that the little black dress became a signifier of a dangerous woman in contrast to the more conservative styles worn by 50s housewives.
In the Swinging Sixties, two very different styles of LBD emerged. The younger Mod generation opted for black mini dresses. Designer Mary Quant helped to lead the mini skirt revolution & continued to push the envelope by adding cut outs to the bodice or slits in the skirt as well as using sheer fabrics such as netting or tulle. However the more mature generation preferred a classic, longer dress such as the black Givenchy sheath dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’. Accessorised with strings of pearls & long satin gloves, Hepburn’s dress was one of the most iconic black dresses of the era. It might even be the most iconic LBD of all time! The simplicity of the little black dress reached its pinnacle in this decade & it has remained a must have item in any women’s wardrobe ever since.
As more subcultures began to emerge during the 1970s, the little black dress continued to evolve. The popularly of disco had a huge impact on fashion. Glitzy embellishments such as sequins were introduced, dramatically altering the silhouette of the LBD. Additionally the wardrobe staple easily morphed into a brooding, rebellious item of clothing, mirroring the new punk rock culture. Debbie Harry was the queen of punk rock dressing & she often wore black to contrast her signature bleached blonde hair. Other punks added PVC, leather, fishnet tights and safety pins to toughen up their LBDs.
The popularity of casual fabrics, especially knits, for dress and business wear during the 1980s brought the little black dress back into vogue. Coupled with the fitness craze, the new designs incorporated details already popular at the time such as broad shoulders or peplums. The incredibly glamorous Joan Collins starred in the 80s TV show 'Dynasty'. Her flamboyant costumes sparked a demand for glitzy cocktail wear & the LBD fit the bill perfectly. Style icons like Madonna helped to transform the image of the LBD once again with lace & tiered ra-ra skirts as seen in the film ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’.
The little black dress truly made a comeback in the 90s, the era of minimalist slip dresses. The grunge culture of the 1990s saw the combination of the little black dress with both sandals & combat boots, though the dress itself remained simple in cut and fabric. Two of the most iconic LBD moments occurred in 1994. First Elizabeth Hurley made international headlines after wearing a racy safety pin gown by Versace to the premiere of ‘Four Weddings & A Funeral’. Then in June, Princess Diana wore a black Christina Stambolian dress to the Serpentine Gallery's summer party hosted by Vanity Fair, the same night that her husband Charles, Prince of Wales admitted to having an adulterous affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. Her ‘revenge dress’ has since become one of her best known looks & helped to cement Diana’s status as a fashion icon.
Nowadays the little black dress has become irreplaceable, as it is a safe yet chic choice when you are unsure about what to wear. The LBD is a timeless garment & every woman should own a simple, elegant black dress that can be dressed up or down depending on the occasion. At Revival we have a wide selection of mid-century vintage little black dresses so you're bound to find something you love.
Loved this post I remember when I first saw that Elizabeth Hurley photo and was so surprised that she would wear something like that! Audrey Hepburn’s LBD was hard to beat, always looks current.