The Birth of an Icon
Very rarely does a fashion item take on such importance as to be given its own initialed moniker, like YSL, CDG or even SJP (who has certainly earned her spot in the fashion hall of fame). But the LBD is in a class unto itself. For decades, women have relied on the power of this one little garment to save the day.
Throughout the Victorian period and the Belle Epoque, women spent years in long, heavy clothing and dour mourning dresses. But in 1926, Coco Chanel created an icon — the first real LBD — dubbed the Ford dress. Appearing in Vogue, they deemed the little black dress as “a sort of uniform for all women of taste.” Worn with long strands of faux pearls and the ubiquitous cloche hat, Chanel gave women mobility and a certain, slouchy ease in a garment that flattered all sizes, just covering the knees (a body part she disliked immensely), and a new sense of chic.
The Wartime Years
The LBD proved its staying power through World War II, adopted by new high-profile acolytes. Wallis Simpson, the stylish socialite whom Edward, Prince of Wales, abdicated the throne to marry, selected the LBD as her signature look, appearing as glamorous as any star of the silver screen. But the popularity of the LBD was hardly limited to royalty.
Important designers of the day like Lanvin, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, Balmain and Jacques Fath embraced the purity and versatility of the LBD, each designing their own versions within their respective house vocabulary, ensuring that women everywhere could turn to this piece in their wardrobe for a go-to outfit that was always stylish.
Photo: A black woolen utility dress with a sequinned collar and cuffs, on show at a preview in London, June 1946.
The LBD continued its glamorous ascent into the fashion stratosphere as designers got increasingly creative with this simple, singular garment. Balenciaga’s structural baby dolls, poufs and architectural wonders; Audrey Hepburn’s iconic long, slinky sheath by Givenchy in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; and Dior’s narrow day dresses and full swing-skirted numbers were born.
High style and a ladylike air accompanied the LBD of the ’50s. Women experimented with extreme shapes, either very form fitting or swirly-girly; the key was always femme first. Regardless of the shape of the dress, a tiny waist and high, pointy bust remained de rigueur. Pointier, high heel pumps, gloves and hats were the go-to accessories to complete the couture-informed look.
The fashion pendulum swung again, and skirt lengths rose and shapes shifted to waistless sheath dresses. The LBD followed suit, looking as modern as any Paco Rabanne metal disc-dress. The op-art combination of black with white was a big hit during the ’60s, keeping pace with the mod trend.
Crazy stockings in wild patterns or mismatched legs often accompanied a short black dress, making the wearer seem slightly more modest (or quirky). Instead of ladylike pumps and high heels, the go-go boot or low-heeled buckled pump became the finishing touch. Patent leather ruled the day. But the ultimate accessory to your clean-lined LBD was the Vidal Sassoon three-point haircut, first worn by Grace Coddington of American Vogue.
A seismic fashion shift happened in the ’70s. Chic no longer ruled the day, as the hippies tore down the previously held ideals of what looked good. Young women opted for bell-bottoms, hot pants and long maxi skirts. But off in Paris where fashion never stopped being fabulous, the young Yves Saint Laurent continued to give sophisticated women what they were hungry for: gorgeous clothes and plenty of black dresses.
The young American designer Halston put women in disco-draped jersey dresses, backless with plunging necklines and sexy thigh-high slits, and the LBD transformed once again. Another enterprising young American designer, Diane Von Furstenberg, gave liberated women one of the chic-est dresses of her time, the wrap dress.
Sex, sex and more sex ruled this decade. The champion of the LBD in the ’80s was surely Azzedine Alaia. He made the little black dress the hero item in his collections. His masterful technique for fit and cut still goes unmatched today, though others continue to try. Cut from form-fitting leather, spongy knits and elastic-like jersey, an Alaia dress is a timeless feat of fashion. Worn with sexy high-heeled booties, patent corset belts and boyish newsboy caps, an Alaia dress is a classic well worth the cost.
The late Gianni Versace also loved the LBD. Short, sexy and showing off loads of skin — toned and tanned bare legs and arms — Versace loved a flashy LBD trimmed with shiny, gold buttons, jewels and his bold gold logo.
Photo: English model and singer Mandy Smith, 1986.
The grunge look certainly challenged the slick, feminine LBD with many competing lingerie-like slip dresses (worn underneath men’s plaid shirts or oversize cardis with combat boots). But a little grunge could never keep a good woman down. Elizabeth Hurley’s Versace safety-pin LBD was the dress that rocked the world. Hugh Grant’s girlfriend at the time, Hurley’s dress was well-chosen with perfectly placed cut-outs and accentuated with giant gold Versace safety-pins and very low décolletage.
Photo: Liz Hurley in a Versace safety-pin LBD.
The New Century
Since pants were the hot item of the previous decade — and as fashion always seems to oscillate from one extreme to the other — the new century fittingly proved to be the return of the dress. With ever-changing shapes and silhouettes, the LBD dominates season after season. Short, long, fitted or flowing and cut in every fabric imaginable, the LBD is more than ever a staple in every woman’s wardrobe at virtually every price point.
Long live the little black dress.
Photo: First Lady Michelle Obama dons a little black dress during a state visit in 2009.