The Surprising History of the Little Black Dress

The Surprising History of the Little Black Dress

March 5, 2022
By Emily Tinoco

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The little black dress is one of the most iconic, if not the most iconic, looks in a woman’s wardrobe. It’s a piece of fashion history and a piece of our evolving future. Most designers would argue that every woman should own one of the variations on a simple black dress; its color makes it a neutral piece that can be worn almost anywhere, anytime.

But where did this look originate? More importantly, what is so great about it? Well, we are going to give you all the details; from the start of the look to where it is in fashion today. Women of taste of every age, size, and ethnicity – from Victoria Beckham to Coco Chanel to Kate Moss – have donned the look for their own style moment and we think you should too!

Where It Started

The little black dress is iconic, but it obviously has to start somewhere to be the fashion staple it is today. Did you know that the original painting of the little black dress, titled Madame X, was showcased in a Parisian art show in 1884? That’s a fact that we love, but people at the time hated it.

The painter in question was John Singer Sargent; his portrait of the Parisian socialite Virginie Gautreau is one of the first known portraits featuring the LBD. Unfortunately, the painter was well ahead of his time and his art was criticized and laughed at. At the time, black was a color reserved for lower classes and a socialite to the status of Gautreau should not have been painted wearing it.

On top of this, the simple cut and deep v neckline were scandalous, not to mention the gold embellished thin straps that barely held the dress up. While today we love the portrait, at the time it ruined the woman’s life.

Gautreau was forced to excuse herself from society and lived in recluse after it was showcased. Why? Well, it didn’t help that Gautreau was already a bit of a scandal herself, so the painting was the icing on the cake. While it now is seen as a beautiful piece, at the time the piece was ridiculed and seen as a caricature, meaning that most people at the time thought the portrait was meant to humiliate the girl who posed.

Where It Went

Little Black Dress

In the 1920s, flapper girls donned black dresses as a way to show their break from current tradition. The dresses featured a dropped waist and loose-fitting necklines that broke away from anything that fashion had seen thus far. It was the original liberation from traditional female roles and we love that these women took one on the chin for modern women everywhere.

Inspired by this break from tradition, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel became one of the first major designers to revolve looks entirely to black. Her designs rose to fame as wearable, comfortable fashion picks that were gorgeous but offered women range of motion and the ability to take a full breath without fainting. These dresses became a sort of uniform for the aristocracy in New York and other major cities. They were often worn with strings of pearls.

The designs featured a classic bateau neckline and a loose fit around the hips and through the leg, giving women more free movement. Chanel is one of the first designers to fully immerse the color black into designs and has since become a staple for the label, but it’s not the only designer that really made a splash with the LBD.

Hubert de Givenchy was the designer picked to design the iconic black dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in the 1960s for Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The iconic 60s film was defining for Hepburn and the scene in which she wears the dress was chosen for the first few minutes of the movie. It’s one of the most printed posters and even if you haven’t seen the movie, you know exactly which dress and scene we are talking about.

The dress was a sheath silhouette with a high neckline and partially exposed back, and interestingly the cut had to be extended a few inches to cover more leg than originally planned due to style constraints of the 1960s. Not only was the dress iconic, but the character was also iconic for her defiance of family and traditional shapes. She was a small-town girl that left her family behind for dreams of a different life and this dress was a symbol once again of that rebellion.

If you want a little inspiration for a new look with a contemporary edge, we’ve picked a few styles here:

How It’s Going

As we said, the LBD has become not only a fashion staple but has signified for generations of women a look of strength and beauty. It has gone through a lot of changes and style evolutions, but the little black dress isn’t going anywhere. There have been LBD moments so iconic, they deserve the notoriety they’ve gained.

For us, there’s nothing more iconic about a little black dress than the “revenge dress” Princess Diana wore. The year was 1994, and Princess Diana had long been separated from Prince Charles. It was a Vanity Fair party, and the black number was designed by Christina Stambolian. It also happened to be the night that a tell-all interview the Prince had given was set to air. In this interview: his confession to being unfaithful to “The Peoples’ Princess.”

The dress was short, off-the-shoulder cocktail dress, and had a deep enough v that Princess Diana featured a good amount of cleavage. She wore black stockings and simple black heels, but the length and neckline were a serious break from royal protocol of the time. While she was no longer with Prince Charles, she was still a royal public figure and the rebellion from what was appropriate was revolutionary.

Most people in her position would have been mortified and avoided public appearance. Instead, Princess Diana wore a dress that actually had been designed for her years before but she kept it away because she felt it was too daring, and turned all heads. In fact, the confession lost Prince Charles even more public support, and the dress became so iconic that it has gone down in the fashion hall of fame.

Anyone knows that the best revenge against an ex after an affair is to rise above the noise and put your best self forward. Because of women that paved the way for the simplicity of this iconic look, fashion lovers everywhere can wear an LBD and slay.

We aren’t saying a little black dress is only for those that want to get back at someone. It was such a statement because Princess Diana was saying she’s worth more than the past that hurt her and this dress made a stand against what she had been through. Being above the noise is always better than listening to it!

If you’ve gone through your own personal transformation and you’re ready for a new LBD, we think these styles hit just the right note:

Other Icons To Consider

The above-mentioned looks are only some of the beautiful bits of fashion history, but there are a few other notable looks and celebrities we want to mention.

Kerry Washington

Kerry Washington wore a gorgeous tight black lace gown featuring a corset top with added pieces of lace and tulle for dimension and edge. She wore the dress in 2013 to the Producers Guild Awards and it was the perfect combination of sweet, sophisticated, and sexy.

Naomi Campbell

In 2006, Naomi Campbell wore a strapless black satin midi that was classic and timeless. It’s the perfect wardrobe staple that can be worn to a variety of events. It will never go out of style and you will always look amazing.

Jennifer Lawrence

In 2014 Lawrence donned a blazer style LBD to a movie premiere. The shorter number featured long sleeves and a deep v neckline. It’s a style that is really reaching a trend peak right now but will never truly go out of style. It is sleek and feminine with that touch of classic masculinity that is always fun to put a woman’s touch on.

If you want a few options to emulate these styles, look here:

Go Out and Rock

We hope you loved our style picks and LBD moments that we’ve highlighted today, and we hope you’re inspired to have your own little black dress moment. Whether it’s to get back at a bad ex, a way to debut the new you, or just a gorgeous dress that is comfortable and stylish, the little black dress is here to stay and will work for you whenever you need it.

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