Everything you wanted to know about the “little black dress”

The little black dress is the single most enduring women’s fashion staple of the past century. With its simple design, elegant cut and striking shade, the dress — known within the fashion experts as the LBD — is a universal wardrobe item for women of all classes. The dress is pairable with various shoe and jacket combinations, making it suitable for day, evening, formal, business and casual affairs.

In the pre-industrial era, black clothes were viewed as a symbol of aristocracy. The black dyes of the time came from imported oak apples, which were difficult and costly for textile manufacturers to procure in sufficient quantities. During the Victorian era, black became a color that women wore in times of mourning. Widows wore black for periods as long as four years after the death of their husbands.

Who invented the little black dress?

Black first came into vogue as an everyday essential across class lines during the flapper era of the Roaring ’20s. In 1926, designer Coco Chanel unveiled her first sketch of a straight, calf-length black dress. In her view, “black wipes out everything else around”. Her little black dress had flappers doing the Charleston at speakeasies into the wee hours of the morning. After the stock market crash of October 1929, Americans plunged into the Great Depression and few people had money to lavish on clothes. The little black dress, with its simple design and minimal use of fabric, remained popular as an affordable alternative to the more ornate women’s clothes of decades passed. During the 1930s Dust Bowl era, designers made longer versions of the dress for women to wear at evening events.

Photo: Getty Images

How long has the little black dress been popular?

By the early 1940s, the fashion world had undergone a drastic overhaul. Gone were the loose, fringey looks from Clara Bow’s heyday; replaced by the more tailored styles of film noir sirens like Gene Tierney and Rita Hayworth. After America entered WWII, textiles had to be rationed for several years. The little black dress remained popular because it required only small amounts of fabric to manufacture. With most of the nation’s young men away fighting, women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers. The LBD became a business staple because it was pairable with blazers, gloves and daytime pumps. Christian Dior‘s “New Look” of 1947 featured tight waists that paved way for the hourglass silhouettes of the following decade. All of these trends fueled the continued popularity of the little black dress.

During the 1950s, the little black dress was worn by Hollywood bombshells like Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Lauren. The era saw tight skirts become popular among young women. Black was viewed as the most flattering – in some circles, risque – color. Naturally, the little black dress was more popular than ever. It was often paired during this period with seamed stockings, stiletto heels and platinum hair. In 1961, Audrey Hepburn paired the little black dress with opera gloves and beehive hair in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The scene stills and promos of Hepburn’s likeness in the movie have become synonymous with the dress. Her look would be influential for the next four years.

Photo: Getty Images

Has the little black dress ever gone out of style?

By the mid-’60s, the younger women of the mod generation started rejecting hourglass looks for a-lines and higher hemlines. Black remained popular for a few more years, often paired with gogo boots. However, the rise of hippiedom supplanted black for earth tones and floral prints. The 1970s found the little black dress out of vogue. Fashions of this period tended toward the brown, beige and secondary/tertiary end of the warm spectrum (tangerine, marigold).

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Is the little black dress back in style?

The little black dress made a huge return during the 1980s as fashions turned 180º away from the prior decade. Everyone from Dynasty Divas to punk and metal vixens paired the dress with the wide-shouldered, sleek-heeled, sheer-legged looks of the era. Perhaps the most iconic image from this era is the video to Robert Palmer’s 1986 hit “Addicted to Love”, where the singer is flanked by four mannequin-musicians donning little black dresses.

Photo: Getty Images

The trend continued into the early 1990s, when it was a staple of the runways, as seen on supermodels like Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell. The late ’90s and early 2000s marked one of fashion’s blandest phases, but the little black dress has made a comeback since the late 2000s. Its sleek classiness has since been reinvented by Hervé Leger and worn by Kim Kardashian and Nicole Scherzinger. These days, the little black dress is often paired with Louboutin heels and sheer hosiery. Given today’s wide range of style tribes and the continued popularity of looks from the ’40s, ’50s, ’80s and so forth, the dress is unlikely to go out of style in our lifetime.

More about Jael Josevich

“I’m an amateur baker with a passion for writing, scary movies, coffee and anything Kristen Bell related. Also secretly a huge Taylor Swift fan.”