In the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with the overlay of an instrumental hum of “Moon River” playing softly, we are introduced to a grey Manhattan, likely just past the break of dawn. The busy streets still silenced from the night before, a lone yellow taxicab pulls up in front of an imposing building, like all those on Fifth Avenue. Out comes a woman, a very particular one. There she is, Audrey Hepburn, in an astonishing black dress. As she peers into the Tiffany & Co. window, she takes a bite of her donut, a sip of her coffee, and the rest is history: Here is born the Little Black Dress.
The history and the meanings of the little black dress – a term so popular it seems to have entered and never left the cultural lexicon – has been shaped and evolved time and time again. A black dress, as one might appropriately surmise, was first used for mourning – a meaning it still holds today. According to Sonia A. Bedikian, in the late eighteenth century, across England and France, for upper society, a set of complex rules was created for mourners. It was expected that mourners who had lost a loved one take part in a physical ritualization of sorts, through displaying their grief by wearing heavy black clothing and black crepe veils, caps and bonnets. In order to display their grief, widowers often wore the ensemble for up to four years after a death, and any removal prior to the four-year mark was seen as incredibly disrespectful. According to Bedikian, “formal mourning culminated during the reign of Queen Victoria. Her prolonged grief over the death of her husband, Prince Albert, had much to do with the practice. During the succeeding Edwardian rule, the fashions began to be more functional and less restrictive, but the dress protocol for men and women, including that for the period of mourning, was still rigidly adhered to.”
This practice of mourning changed, however, with the first of the World Wars, where a devastating amount of women became widowed. Nevertheless, because of the circumstances of the wars, they were still required to work. Wearing heavy attire, particularly a veil, seemed not only impractical but burdensome and dangerous for the otherwise “masculine workplace” which included factory work and transporting coal. Thus marked the end of lavish mourning, and the first disruption of significance for the black dress. Widowers now chose simple dresses that were modest and, of course, black. Jewelry, if worn at all, was kept simple, but certain traditions, though relaxed, still remained: Widows’ caps, a black hat with a peak at the front, continued to be worn, while a black veil was fashioned only to frame the face instead of completely cover it, and necklines were often cut in a v-neck, exposing the chest. As Bedikian notes, “during the following decades, gradually the rules were relaxed further and it became acceptable for both sexes to dress in dark colors for up to a year after a death in the family.”
But how could a colour and a dress that was used for centuries to signify mourning, be changed into a signifier of scandal in merely a few decades? While black still very well may signify death, it might just be those very associations with death that prove the shade so provocative. For instance, black is often the colour associated with evil, and many rituals which are culturally pervasive see evil as often associated with death, or the rising of the dead. Thus, in social spaces where black would be specifically culturally noted as a shade of interest mostly associated with either death or evil and the occult, wearing such a meaningful shade without any of the meaning habitually associated with it, such as a bereaved love one, would suggest that the wearer of that dress is marked. While she may not be evil, she is certainly different, certainly bold, and certainly an individual un-fearing of the scornful eye of society. This is perhaps what gives the little black dress such allure. As noted by Nancy MacDonell Smith in her book, The Classic Ten: The True Story of the Little Black Dress and Nine Other Fashion Favourites, “Black implies you have something to hide, such as a colourful past. It’s a provocative colour, one few people are indifferent to…Wearing black implies transgression. Anna Karenina wore black to the ball at which Vronsky became smitten with her; her niece, Kitty, herself in love with Vronsky, wore pale pink – and failed utterly to get his attention. When a woman puts on a black dress, the world assumes she’s sophisticated, sexual, and knowing.”
Fashion designer Coco Chanel can be credited for creating the little black dress for popular wear, beyond the sole scope of mourning: In the mid 1920’s, “Chanel’s Ford”, a short black dress, was published in Vogue. The name of it was so, as the dress was expected to become a uniform of sorts, since the dress was simple, elegant, and available for all women regardless of their social class. In the book Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, Justine Picardine notes, “the little black dress was not formally identified as the shape of the future until 1926, when American Vogue published a drawing of a Chanel design… It was an apparently simple yet elegant sheath, in black crêpe de Chine, with long, narrow sleeves, worn with a string of white pearls; and Vogue proved to be correct in the prediction that it would become a uniform…” The great depression, which followed in the 1930s, allowed for the little black dress to continue its popularity. It was simple and cheap solution to looking elegant yet demure in a time of deep financial worry.
At this time, Hollywood made great gains and often used black attire, which helped avoid distorted colouring in films that had started using Technicolor. As such, many actresses took the idea of wearing black outside of only film and are often credited for the popularization of the shade. For instance, actress Joan Bennett was one of the earliest actresses to pose in black, wearing a flapper ensemble that characterized the time period. The following decade, as women returned to the workforce during the time of World War II, black dresses continued to be worn, only now, as businesswear.
The end of the Second World War, however, again would mark a shift in the meaning of the black dress. With celebrations of a Nazi defeat, bright colours and whites became incredibly fashionable, and thus the meaning of black as tied to either death or evil re-emerged. Hollywood used this shift in meaning, interestingly enough, to re-characterize its femme fatales as women in black halter-dresses, contrasted greatly with the wholesome protagonist, usually wearing white.
Only in the 1960s, where the brilliant pairing of an actress known for her demure, wholesome, conservative appeal with a daring black Givenchy dress would the re-popularization of the little black dress be catalyzed. Wearing such a shade in one of the most popular films at the time was meaning again shifted in favour for the little black dress as popular and appropriate attire.
Since that time, little black dresses have become a staple item, on nearly every runway, regardless of the season. Though they usually adopt the style du jour, our own little black dresses make their way inside our closets, for days in which we wish to, ironically, shine.
By Mariana Bockarova