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By Molly Cohen, 2018 Fashion Archives Intern

The Little Black Dress (LBD)- a classic staple found in most women’s closets. But where did it come from, and how did it survive? While processing numerous garments at the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) Fashion Archives, I’ve been surprised by the amount of black I have seen spanning decades, even centuries. Some fashion experts say black never goes out of style, but let’s take a look to see if there is truth in that statement, and why…

Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 11.15.11 AMIllustrator unknown, Vogue, October 1926

The first appearance of the LBD in a major fashion magazine that truly served as a springboard to the movement we all still follow today is as shown above, in a 1926 edition of VOGUE. It featured a simple costume rendering of a woman in a long sleeved knee length black dress in crêpe de Chine. The accessories are clean and classic to make the entire look and silhouette pop through its uniqueness and quiet elegance. Marie Claire notes “the publication dubbed it ‘Chanel’s Ford’, in other words it was simple and accessible to women of all classes. Vogue also said it would become ‘a sort of uniform for all women of taste’ “, and they couldn’t be more spot on. (Goldstone 2017). 

Black became a go-to fabric choice for a wide range of reasons. Firstly, a concept that still rings true today, is its slimming power. Chanel herself said that “black wipes out everything else around”, while still drawing attention away from any single part of the body; it creates a sleek uniform silhouette that provides protection and a level of reveal all at the same time. And as they say, black truly does look good on everyone.  

Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 11.41.04 AMPortrait of Coco Chanel by Man Ray 

Another contributing factor to the success of the LBD was its timing. As its popularity among women gained regarding its concept and universality, The Great Depression struck. Fashion became an industry of costs- what fabric and patterns could be made quickly, cheaply, and to last? A fabric with no print, detailing, beading, or lace definitely fit the build. As textiles were rationed during this time, the simple LBD look allowed for the least amount of wasted fabric because of the lack of accouterments, nor having to line up the print and weave ever so perfectly which cost extra time, money, and fabric. Plain black fabric that could be dressed up by its wearer according to the occasion, and could be worn at really any occasion, was the key to keeping the garment industry afloat. 

Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 11.52.32 AM

Chanel in her LBD. Sketch by Karl Lagerfeld., Supplied Courtesy of Pushkin Press.
Over the next few decades, other fashion houses such as Schiaparelli, Dior, and Givenchy were known for their own adoption and reinvention of the LBD. But, the rivalry between the House of Chanel and the House of Schiaparelli, another woman owned and designed brand, may have had a hand in keeping the LBD, and its newer iterations, alive. As The Great Depression began to turn around for the better, women’s suits starting appearing throughout the fashion world to signal to dawn of the female worker. Though Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli weren’t necessarily designing for the working class woman, they still greatly influenced how all women dressed. 
Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 12.13.43 PMElsa Schiaparelli 1938, Courtesy of
In the mid 1930’s, “as Coco launched her Chanel suit, Elsa introduced her green chameleon gloves with gold ruffles sprouting from the fingers, and smart black suit jackets with red lips for pockets. Chanel dismissed her rival as ‘that Italian artist who makes clothes’. Whilst to Schiaparelli, Chanel was simply ‘that milliner’ “(The Extraordinary Life of Coco Chanel). It is clear that these two women had very different styles and clients they were designing for, but their influence on one another cannot be denied. Their desire to put out a better product of ready wear fashion for the modern woman than their competitor drove each designer to produce more in efforts to dominate the market. This perpetuated the fashion life of the LBD and its many versions, like The Little Black Suit, for it was seen so frequently, yet never tired of.
IMG_2280Casual black evening dress, 1975, Crissa Linea Italiana, Italy, wool knit, Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Gregory Weidman, 1981.18.7.
The LBD shown above and recently discovered in the Fashion Archives here at the Maryland Historical Society offered a lot of information about the evolution of this iconic style through its detailing, fabric, and silhouette. The cream stripes carefully positioned both vertically and horizontally throughout the garment offers a subtle layer of detail to catch the eye, while still not overwhelmingly flashy. This is the very essence of the LBD, subtle yet intriguing, modest while flattering. The contrast of the pale cream against the midnight black allows the LBD to stand out for what it is, needing no extra detailing to hide its true form. The tight knit fabric allows for a stretch and accentuation of the bodice, the one area of the dress purposefully lacking any stripes. The coverage leaves the wearer secure in the garment while still feeling confident in their own figure because of its flattering fit. The long sleeves, mock turtle neck, and relatively long and full skirt again stick to the roots of Chanel’s LBD while adding a unique twist. One can imagine the wearer in attendance to a winter dinner party, complete with semi sheer black stockings, black pumps, and pearls; a 1970’s Holly Golightly.
Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 12.27.18 PMThe Little Black Jacket: Chanel’s Classic Revisited by Karl Lagerfeld and Carine Roitfeld. 2012, Saatchi Gallery. Exhibition Photos by Karl Lagerfeld.

The images above show just how influential Chanel’s work is today. An entire exhibit was designated to the reinvention of her infamous LBD, which was titled The Little Black Jacket to pay homage to Ms. Chanel. We continuously re-imagine her classic look, each season a seemingly new twist appearing in stores. Its universality has allowed it to survive and stay a classic renowned go to, and many agree it will stay that way for at least decades to follow.  

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n/a. “1930 Coco’s Great Fashion Rivalry.” The Extraordinary Life of Coco Chanel | Little Black Dress,

Goldstone, Penny. “History Of The Little Black Dress From Coco Chanel To Audrey Hepburn.” Marie Claire, Marie Claire, 4 Aug. 2017,