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Who Invented the Little Black Dress?

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The “little black dress,” quintessential staple of any woman’s wardrobe, isn’t as timeless as most people think. An LBD is a classic in that it’s neither a trend nor is it ever out of fashion, but its history is a surprisingly short one, dating back only about a century to the early 1900s. While history tends to credit French designer Coco Chanel with popularizing the design, the question of who came up with the little black dress first is a little more complicated than that. 

As hard as it is to believe today—when black clothing is the neutral, flattering norm, and the latest fashion is credited as “the new black”—dark-colored garments were hardly a stylish society woman’s first choice years ago. Through the 1800s, black clothing was associated with mourning dress; in previous centuries, it was a symbol of luxury, as only the wealthy could afford costly black dye for their garments. Public perception gradually changed as history’s fashionistas realized that black was not only a practical choice that did not show stains or spills, but also a stylish one that offset their expensive accessories to good advantage. By the time Coco Chanel came into the equation in the 1920s, black dresses of all shapes and sizes were already quite popular all on their own.

The specific little black dress so famously associated with Chanel appeared in a 1926 issue of Vogue, a simple, calf-length design shown with a plain string of pearls that was distinct in its contrast to the heavily embellished flapper styles that were popular at the time. The magazine called it “Chanel’s Ford”—referring to Henry Ford’s Model T car, the standard for all automobiles to come—and predicted its role as “a sort of uniform for all women of taste.” A 1930 issue of Vogue later featured another black Chanel dress, made of sheer black lace with a matching capelet, which served to double down on the public perception of Coco Chanel having invented the fashion. However, designers like Edward Molyneux were simultaneously promoting their own, similar fashions, just without Vogue’s endorsement.

Perhaps the most iconic little black dress of all is a work of the 1960s: Audrey Hepburn famously wore a little black Givenchy dress as Holly Golightly in the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the movie that spawned a million Halloween costumes. That level of exposure may have truly cemented the little black dress as a cultural touchstone, so much so that we’ve turned it into an acronym: LBD, which has been included in the official Oxford Dictionary of English since 2010.

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holidays
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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