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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June 26, 2013 - 9:30am
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