History of the Little Black Dress (and our Favorite Ones)

Posted: Aug 05 2016

We all know that the Little Black Dress, otherwise known as the LBD, is an essential piece in every girl’s wardrobe. But why? One could just say because it’s utterly chic and flatters every body type – which is true, but there’s so much more to it. Let’s delve into one of the most iconic pieces of all time and discover the origins and history of The Little Black Dress.

First things first: Coco Chanel did NOT invent the Little Black Dress.

Image Courtesy of Vogue 

Yes, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel did play a very influential role in bringing the LBD to the market and popularizing it for the masses, but she did not invent the concept of “the little black dress.” There are many precursors to the October 1926 issue of Vogue, where Chanel’s design first appeared. The picture published of her design was a short and simple dress – calf-length, straight and decorated by only a few diagonal lines. Vogue called it “Chanel’s Ford,” likening the modest garment to the reliable Model-T of the time. Henry Ford’s famous words, “any customer can have a car painted in any color that he wants so long as it’s black,” are practically sewn into the seams of the LBD. At this time, Vogue was publishing lengthy reviews of Parisian fashions, pages and pages of the latest sketches and designs from top French designers. Names like Jeanne Lanvin, Jean Patou, Madeline Voinnet and Jacques Doucet graced the pages with descriptions detailing ever aspect of their designs.

Chanel earned this short sentiment:
“The Chanel “Ford” frock that all the world will wear is model 817 of black crepe de chine. The bodice blouses slightly at the front and sides and has a tight bolero at the back. Especially chic is the arrangement of tiny tucks which cross in front. Imported by Saks.”

That’s it. The small sketch that appeared in the October 1st issue barely caused a stir and definitely did not incite the overwhelming praise one would expect of the iconic LBD. Vogue did not make any mention of the LBD for quite some time after that, although Vogue Paris did call it the “uniform for the modern woman” the following month.


One thing to keep in mind is that the idea of a “little black dress” wasn’t exactly appealing or exciting to the average woman in the 20s. Prior to the 20s, the Victorian and Edwardian eras were times with a sophisticated and symbolic language of dress. In this case, the black dress was most commonly associated with funerals and the attire of a widow. Widows at this time were expected to wear several stages of mourning dress for at least two years. As the number of deaths rose during WWI and with the Spanish influenza, it became more common for women to be seen wearing black in public. So when did the LBD become so chic then? Especially if the daring and bold women of the 20s did not want to be mistaken for wearing their mourning clothes…

When the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929 and fortunes began to quickly disappear, funds tightened and the public entered into a time of frugality and practicality. The new movie houses offered a cheap form of entertainment, and the audience admired glamorous gals wearing black dresses that appeared so sharp and crisp on film. At the same time, American designers and manufacturers traveled to Paris to steal designs and noticed the black Chanel dress. Taking the style, they campaigned that this Parisian export was a “must-have” for every fashionable lady.

By the mid-1930s, “the little black dress” became a commonly used phrase within advertising, with department stores proclaiming it to be the piece women “can’t live without.” Fashion took a hard hit during World War II; with haute couture not being a priority, many women opted for the sophisticated and no-frills black dress.

 

After the war ended, Hollywood entered into a period of the “Femme Fatale”; “bombshell” leading ladies such as Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe all donned the sexy black dress. As the years went on, the idea that “every smart woman has one little black dress in her wardrobe” seeped into the public consciousness. Chanel, herself, encouraged this edict, claiming, “One is never over nor underdressed in a little black dress.”

Image Courtesy of Vogue Mexico

Image Courtesy of Vogue 

However, Audrey Hepburn wearing the LBD by Givenchy in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the real turning point. The black sheath sleeveless gown with a fitted bodice has been described as the most famous little black dress of all time. In 2006, it was auctioned at Christie’s in London for a final price of about £470,000 or $800,000 US dollars.

Image Courtesy of Vogue 

After this point, almost every LBD harkens back to the one that Holly Golightly so effortlessly threw on as she walked down 5th Avenue. Styles have progressed, hemlines of cocktail dresses have become shorter, more flared, and more elaborate – but the true LBD, the most iconic one is that from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Transitioning to modern times, many celebrities and public figures have donned their version of the LBD - from the likes of Princess Diana, Victoria Beckham (then Posh Spice), to Taylor Swift. We've rounded up our batch of favorite and classiest LBDs that are suited for any occasion -- whether it's a day on the town, date night or a fancy event, you can never go wrong with a LBD. 

Valentina Square Neck Dress as seen on style blogger, Nichole Ciotti