When designer Coco Chanel unveiled the first ‘Little Black Dress’ 80 years ago, it caused quite a stir in the world of women’s fashion. Now the iconic garment is so ubiquitous it has its own entry in the New Oxford Dictionary and online Wikipedia encyclopedia.
Fashion’s most timeless octogenarian remains as much a style statement today as it was in its first daring incarnation in 1926 — a symbol of simple, practical chic. LBD, as it is known, is a sartorial choice of women of all ages and places.
“What Chanel invented is more a ‘principle’, an idea, the fact that a dress can be used in different situations and can be changed by the addition of accessories,” said Paris-based fashion historian Florence Muller.
Up until the 1920s, female elegance meant changing outfits for every occasion or part of the day, with highly decorative clothes that were heavy, uncomfortable and often required a helping hand to put on. Chanel’s revolution ushered in the one dress that could be worn from dawn till dusk with little adornment apart from wellchosen costume jewellery, yet remain the ultimate in modern elegance, Muller said.
The initial LBD was a simple crepe creation with a high neckline, long sleeves and cut to just above the knee, with no buttons, embroidery, layering or fringing. And it was in black, a colour associated in post-World War I Europe with mourning, the clergy or, worse, a servant’s uniform.
Since then, the LBD has gone on to inspire leading designers and high street stores through the decades, constantly reinvented in shape, cut, fabric and detail, but remaining a wardrobe staple. It has had books and an exhibition devoted to it, while actresses are often associated with the Little Black Dress they wore in a scene of a film years earlier.