The history behind the hero piece in your closet, the little black dress.
Starring: Hamish Bowles
Director: Max Bartick
Edited by: Charlie Denholm
Additional Edit: Phil Ceconi, Rob Lombardi and Daniel Poler
Producer: Naomi Nishi
Associate Producer: Rachel Cantor
Writer: Stephanie D'agostini
HAMISH BOWLES: Hello, I'm Hamish Bowles, International Editor-at-Large of American "Vogue." And I'm here to tell you everything you need to know about the little black dress. Whoever said orange is the new black obviously never owned one of these. A versatile fashion staple marked by its above ankle length, the little black dress, or the LBD, is nearly synonymous with the cocktail dress. Everyone who's anyone, from Princess Diana in Christina Stambolian to Billy Porter in Christian Siriano, knows the power the black dress holds.
But it was Coco Chanel who first gave the LBD its high fashion debut. In 1926, a sketch of Chanel's calf-length black crepe de Chine dress made its way to the pages of American "Vogue." Referred to as Chanel's Ford, after the ubiquitous Model T of the same era, the dress was described as "the frock that all the world will wear." Undoubtedly, Chanel's dress was revolutionary. The drop waist and straight line silhouette offered women a new sense of mobility and liberation, on par with the more visible, vocal, and newly enfranchised modern woman.
Some people speculated that Coco's use of black was a defiant response to the uniform she was forced to wear in her childhood at an orphanage. Regardless, her revenge or otherwise, black quickly transformed from a color associated with widows and religious figures to one donned by movie stars and socialites alike. Let's fast forward to the prosperous '50s. After the 1947 new look put an international spotlight on French designer Christian Dior, he shortened his dress length from the ankles to just below the knees.
His iconic and alphabetic silhouettes, the A, H, and Y, to name but a few, gave the LBD a shapely feminine twist. Rounded shoulders, nipped-in waists, and full skirts were Dior's signature style. Dior was the first to label these evening frocks cocktail dresses, and magazines, department stores, designers, and customers were quick to rise to the occasion. In the late '50s and early '60s, youth culture was thriving, and Audrey Hepburn was America's brightest star. Hubert de Givenchy found a muse in Hepburn, but he could have never predicted that his LBDs would become nearly synonymous with the woman wearing them.
Hepburn's beloved characters, often exemplifying daring cosmopolitan women, made the little black dress sought after by younger generations for the first time. Even Barbie, known for her youthful wardrobe of girly pink outfits, was caught wearing her first black dress in 1964. In Paris, however, a different shape was taking form. Spanish designer and master couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga was experimenting with tubular silhouettes, a callback to Chanel's 1920s designs. His use of stiff silk gazar, a moldable lightweight textile, revolutionized what shape a cocktail dress could be.
Take his 1967 four-point dress, for instance, decorated with a rhinestone brooch and imitation pearls. Since the late 1930s, Balenciaga found inspiration from the sobering black he saw in traditional Spanish folk dresses, menswear, Catholic orders, and historic Spanish art. During the latter 1960s, freedom, feminism, and free love reigned supreme. This era was all about risks, and French designer Yves Saint Laurent wasn't afraid to take them. Already having earned the title of world's youngest couturier, after taking over Dior at just 21 years old, Yves Saint Laurent was a champion of street culture, rebellion, and sex appeal.
His ostrich dress, made of sheer black chiffon with plumage at the hips, turned heads on the runway for freeing the nipple way before it was a trending hashtag. Saint Laurent famously put Catherine Deneuve in a schoolgirl-inspired LBD for her role in "Belle de Jour." And soon, actresses were spotted wearing minis of their own, both on and off the screen. By the late '70s and early '80s, the LBD took a back seat to the more extravagant and colorful designs that defined that era. The period wasn't a total bust for the LBD, however.
The queen of rock and roll herself, Tina Turner, regularly wore the dresses of Tunisian couturier Azzedine Alaia, whose stretch fabrics made his pieces the obvious choice for performers looking for alternatives to the classic leotard. Designer Patrick Kelly too, self-referred to as the black male Lucille Ball, gave the chic fashion staple a flashy twist. His use of bows, hearts, and buttons added an '80s flair to his designs. After all, more is more in the era of the Material Girl. But like Madonna, the little black dress is sure to make a comeback.
In 1985, for her debut collection, Donna Karan introduced the concept of "Seven Easy Pieces" that helped you assemble your very own little black dress. Karl Lagerfeld, newly crowned creative director of Chanel, understood the power of nostalgia. But instead of using the black crepe de Chine material in the original design, he opted for a modern combination of black vinyl and polyester jersey. Helmut Lang's collection similarly featured raw stripped down pieces. His dress, featured in this 1989 issue of "Vogue," was described as fitting like a second skin.
And of course, all eyes were on the it girls of the '90s. Whether they were your favorite TV characters, the world's biggest supermodels, or a member of the British Royal Family, black dresses became the obvious way to wear the minimalist fashion revolution. That brings us to the 21st century. With 80-plus years behind them, designers were looking for even more ways to reinvent the little black wheel. One thing has always been certain, though. Sex sells, and these designers knew it.
By this time, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana were already Italy's go-to designers for overt sex appeal. Dolce & Gabbana's Sicilian widow-inspired LBDs were given a twist of Italian femininity with the use of lingerie, black lace, and roses. And who can forget the Prada dress worn by Bond girl Camille in 2008's "Quantum of Solace"? The mid to late 2000s were all about cutouts. Anthony Vaccarello for Saint Laurent, Christopher Kane, Olivier Rousteing for Balmain, and Donatella Versace all showed inventive black evening wear with slits, gaps, and unexpected neck lines.
Carly Cushnie, too, released a handful of black dresses in her 2020 ready-to-wear collections. But perhaps her most modern piece is this, a designer in an LBD holding her own child, the outfit of choice for the fearless successful woman. But it may be that the most interesting take on the little black dress came not from a designer, but instead from who was wearing it.
The latter years of the 2010s has had men strutting their way down the red carpet in black dresses of their own. For one and all, a quick change of jewelry or shoes can transform any black dress from a daytime to evening look, making it the perfect choice for, well, anyone. Perhaps the little black dress really is fashion's great equalizer.