The Little Black Dress, or LBD as it is fondly referred to, became popular due to its association with seductive glamour and its ability to make a statement. Its origins can be traced back to 1926, when Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel debuted her simple, figure-hugging, knee-length jersey dress with a high neckline and long sleeves. Chanel herself dubbed it the "little black dress," and its versatility, affordability, and popularity grew over the years. Notable wearers included Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Joan Bennett, Josephine Baker, Wallis Simpson, and Catherine Deneuve. Synthetic fibers made the style accessible, and the graphic simplicity of black made it a blank canvas for accessories. Today, the term "LBD" is applied to any black dress, regardless of cut or design, making it a universal staple in women's fashion.
The Little Black Dress, fondly referred to as the LBD, is now synonymous with alluring glamour. From Audrey Hepburn to Beyoncé, style icons have donned the LBD to make a statement. But when did this simple garment establish itself as a fashion icon in its own right.
When American Vogue likened a dress to the Ford Model T car, it was meant as a high compliment. Both were game-changers in their simplicity and accessibility. The dress restored black as a fashionable color, and the car made personal transportation democratic. The dress was hailed as “attainable” because of its stripped-down design, while black had been worn as a symbol of sophistication by Spanish aristocracy as far back as the 16th century.
The comparison between the dress and the car was made in 1926, 18 years after the Model T's launch. That same year, Gabrielle Chanel debuted her version of the Little Black Dress, which is considered her greatest contribution to fashion. While others, such as British couturier Edward Molyneux, had previously experimented with the LBD, Chanel's version stood out with its minimalistic design, figure-hugging knee-length jersey, high neckline, and long sleeves.
Chanel coined the term "little black dress," though the phrase "little black frock" was used earlier in Henry James' novel "The Wings of the Dove" in 1902. Chanel's affectionate moniker helped establish the LBD as the default style for any occasion, adaptable for dressing up or down.
The design of the LBD was ahead of its time and played a role in the radical changes in women's fashion during the flapper era of the 1920s and beyond.
The LBD was embraced by starlets, performers, and royalty alike, from Joan Bennett to Josephine Baker and Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. Variations on the LBD included styles with peacock feathers, asymmetric necklines, and diamanté embellishments.
In the decades that followed, black became a staple in women's wardrobes for both practical reasons, such as rationing during World War II, and its growing association with sexiness, as seen in Rita Hayworth's role in "Gilda."
However, the LBD reached its defining moment in 1961 when Audrey Hepburn wore it as Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." This is when the LBD transitioned from a novel item to a universal staple.
Interestingly, the LBD worn by Golightly in the opening credits, designed by Hepburn's frequent collaborator Hubert de Givenchy, was not short, but was instead a floor-length gown paired with evening gloves.
Additionally, Catherine Deneuve's dress in "Belle de Jour" further solidified the LBD's reputation for French chic. The availability and affordability of synthetic fibers made the style accessible, and tulle and netting were incorporated into the design.
Over time, the term "LBD" became synonymous with any black dress, regardless of the cut. The simplicity and versatility of the black color, whether in silk, spandex, or leather, became more significant than the specific design.
However, there have been exceptions, the most notable being the Gianni Versace dress worn by actress Elizabeth Hurley to a movie premiere in 1994. This dress was low-cut, featured a side slit held together by large gold safety pins.