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Hang Onto Your Pearls: The Little Black Dress is Born



Sound the trumpets and hail Chanel! October 1 marks the Officially Recognized Day of the introduction of the designer’s iconic and history-making Little Black Dress. Yep, it was on this day in 1926 that American Vogue magazine ran a small illustration (left) of what it called Chanel’s “Ford” dress, likening the modest garment to the reliable Model-T of the era and hearkening Henry Ford’s line, “any customer can have a car painted in any colour that he wants so long as it’s black.” This was a time when twice a month, Vogue faithfully offered lengthy reviews of the Paris fashions, page after page of sketches of the latest coats, dresses, hats and gloves from the top French designers. Jeanne Lanvin, Jean Patou, Jeanne Paquin, Madeline Voinnet and Jacques Doucet received pages of descriptions detailing every element of their designs, from cuff to hemlines to buttons, and, occasionally, Mlle. Chanel earned a paragraph or two. But in 1926,
Chanel’s casual designs were hardly considered true haute couture to Manhattan society ladies and Vogue editors; her jersey sportswear and unadorned dresses alone didn’t garner the six-day trip across the Atlantic by boat. So when the small sketch appeared in the October 1 issue it barely caused a stir, and it definitely didn’t incite the kind of rapturous praise the LBD, as we now call it, has received in recent decades. No, on this day, Vogue even curbed its usual gushing prose and accompanied the illustration with the following text:

The Chanel “Ford” the 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.”

The end. And that was that for Chanel’s Model T. Vogue did not mention it again for some time, though the following month Vogue Paris called it the “uniform for the modern woman.”

It’s helpful to keep in mind that the idea of a “little black dress” wasn’t exactly appealing to the average 1926 woman. This was an era when, for the first time in American history, young women were moving to cities—often alone—and taking smart jobs in offices and boutiques. The flapper lifestyle was racy even by today’s standards: The cute bobbed hair, heavy makeup, loosely belted coats and unbuckled galoshes were accessorized with a lifestyle of cocktails, cigarettes, Charlestons and casual sex. “Shopping” as a verb was only just entering the vocabulary as a form of recreation, not as in, “I need to shop for groceries,” but as in “let’s go shopping!” Of course these fresh, young revolutionary women would have had little interest in one of Chanel’s dreary smocks; they already owned one black dress for funerals only, thank you very much, and had no interest in spending what little money they had on another.

The inspiration behind Chanel’s black dress is equally glum, or at least that’s how legend tells it. The story goes that the designer began wearing black when her lover Boy Capel died in 1919, and the first black dresses she designed thereafter “were inspired by the simple black mourning attire worn by peasant women in the French villages she knew as a child,” wrote journalist Paula Dietz some 60 years later. But as the Twenties came to a close, a handful of events hastened the rise of the little black dress. First, Black Tuesday hit on October 29, 1929, and fortunes began to disappear, ending a devil-may-care era and beginning one of frugality and practicality. The new movie houses offered a cheap form of entertainment, and there audiences watched glamorous stars wearing the black dresses that photographed so sharply on film. At the same time, the American clothing manufacturers who traveled to Paris several times a year to copy designs began recreating the black dresses they saw Chanel and, now, her contemporaries making, and championed the style back home as a “must-have.” Designer Nettie Rosenstein, according to Bill Blass, “practically invented the little black dress for Americans.” By the mid-1930s, “the little black dress” had become a turn of phrase in advertising, with department stores trumpeting it as the piece of clothing a modern woman “can’t live without.”

As the years ticked on, the idea that “every smart woman has one little black dress in her wardrobe” seeped into the public consciousness, an edict encouraged by Chanel herself, whose opinionated personality and sound-bite-ready way of speaking was becoming as famous as her clothes. “One is never over nor underdressed in a little black dress,” she said. Chanel instructed women to dress and behave a certain way, and they took her words to heart.

But it wasn’t until 1961 when young, trendy Audrey Hepburn wore the definitive little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s that the style became a craze. Hepburn’s dress was not by Chanel but Hubert de Givenchy, and yet she embodied the spirit of the Chanel quote most closely associated with the LBD: “A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.” In 2006, Hepburn’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s LBD was auctioned for charity for more than $800,000.

When Coco Chanel died in 1971, the little black dress was traced back to her, and her legacy was cemented. Shortly thereafter, “LBD” was coined (although the abbreviation took another 39 years to make it into the Oxford Dictionary of English.) In 1983, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum presented “The Little Black Dress,” the first exhibition dedicated to what was is undoubtedly the biggest fashion phenomenon of the 20th century. Many likeminded exhibitions have followed, and entire books have been written on the subject.

Chanel did not “invent” the LBD. In 1925, for example, the New York Times mentioned a “particular smart model” from Lanvin, “a dinner dress built of black satin with no trimming; ” in 1916 the English magazine, The Queen, used the phrase “little black satin dress;” and as early as 1902 Henry James describes “a little black frock” in “The Wings of a Dove.” The LBD was around before Chanel’s crepe de chine number appeared in Vogue, but she told us to wear it, and so we did. —Ali Basye

Photos: From top to bottom: The famous sketch that appeared in the October 1, 1926, issue of Vogue. Coco Chanel in one of her LBDs, Audrey Hepburn in the definitive little black dress, this one by Givenchy. The Little Black Dress, one of many books authored on the subject.

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One Response to “Hang Onto Your Pearls: The Little Black Dress is Born”

  • Really enjoyed reading this, Ali. For some reason, I’ve always been interested in the “little black dress,” the dress that every woman “must have.” Learning of the history of how the LBD became essential, was new and interesting to me. After Audrey wore one, I wanted that one! — course, I really wanted to look like Audrey. Thanks, enjoyed this.

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