It’s been said that Coco Chanel’s iconic little black dress has a surprisingly colorful history for an item famous for its ebony shade. That’s a fair observation. First designed nearly a century ago by Chanel in her Paris studio, this simple symbol of the modern woman has become one of the most applauded looks in fashion history. Be it on the runway, gracing the red carpet, or flooding the movie screen, generations since the 1920s have watched black transform from a color of mourning into something sleek and refreshingly bold. Such a clear and notable past deserves some recognition, especially when the style in question shows no sign of fading from international popularity. Who has helped this strange paradoxical attire — able to be at once austere, demure, and seductive — achieve such immortal status in the fashion industry? A whole lineup of cultural and style icons. Here they are to inspire you.
PHILIP THE GOOD
It has been said that long before Chanel entered her workspace with black fabric and a revolutionary idea, an ancient Duke of Normandy had explored the artistic contradictions of black clothing. In an age when black was used to identify the clergy and people in mourning, Duke Philip work his dark robes to distinguish himself as a distinct nobleman and patron of the arts. It was his use of black to set himself apart from brightly dressed courtesans that earned the color its reputation as a hue of sophistication and notability.
Whether it was post-war grievances or a unique feminist ideal that made Chanel’s LBD an instant success in 1926 is up for debate. What isn’t in question is that the trend took Paris by storm and soon spread to all corners of the hard-to-impress fashion community. Even Vogue was describing the new look with little to no critique, declaring it “the frock that all the world will wear.” First, the French made Coco’s dress the unofficial costume for cabaret and Jazz Age soirees, and from there it began to take over Hollywood and the fashion-hungry Americas.
Any perennial piece of sexy fashion that passed through the 1950s received the Marilyn Monroe stamp of approval. She popularized red dresses, blue dresses, polka dots, and the LBD with that blonde charm even President Kennedy couldn’t resist. Here, she gets playful in a strapless black dress on the set of Asphalt Jungle. After people saw her stirring performance in 1956, little black dress sales went through the roof.
Anyone who loves fashion or film will know this pinnacle of little black dresses. Designed by the acclaimed Givenchy, it was the first LBD to soar to fame without the Chanel name attached to it. Since then, Hepburn’s Holly Golightly has come to define what a black cocktail dress can be. Though the design has gone through multiple updates and adjustments since 1961, this is the look brands will always look back on for stylistic guidance.
When the 90s hit, fashion designers decided to tone down the elaborate LBDs of decades past and go for outfits that highlighted the basics. This produced a slew of punk-inspired leather skirts and the short little black dress. Though plenty of celebrities wore these looks well, no modern reimagining of Chanel’s original piece can match Diana’s “Rebel Dress” worn shortly after her split with Prince Charles. From the sophisticated cleavage to that subtle off-the-shoulder thing, it represented perfectly how timeless an LBD can be.
In 2010, the little black dress finally became immortal. After a long history that spanned an impressive nine decades, LBD officially entered the dictionary. Now everyone will know what you mean when you start rambling about the trendy LBD you saw at H&M last weekend. It’s literally a word in the English language.
With an all-star reputation and shocking versatility, Chanel’s LBD has earned a spot in your wardrobe. Simple yet adaptable, it’s proven to be the dress you can wear for any occasion. Whether casually headed out the door or primping for an official meeting, this is one dress you can slip on without checking the mirror first to see if it works.
— Julie Grossman