The Little Black Dress, part one.
“You can wear black any time.
You can wear it at any age.
You may wear it on almost any occasion
A Little black frock is essential toa woman´s wardrobe.
I could write a book about BLACK” / Christian Dior 1954
In order to understand the impact Black has upon us, we need to look back in history. First of all you need to know that black is not a color but a total absorption of light. Now, let us go back to the most extravagant Court of Philip the Good, The Duke of Burgundy (1396-1467). The Duke and his Court was leading in culture at this time, and not only did the Duke support artists such as Jan van Eyck and the composer Gilles Binchois but he also was dominating in Fashion and spent fortunes on textiles. During his reign the colour red and the textile velvet was reserved only for the members of the Court. He was like most nobel people inspired by the di Medicis of Florence who controlled most of the textilebusiness at this time… Well they controlled more or less everything since they were bankers, merchants, and members of the church amongst many proffessions, and placed familymembers on every important post. A family worthy a soap opera since it was filled with incest, murder, blackmail, infidelity and of course religion….
Black was favored by the Duke who made deliberate and effective appearances dressed in Black from head to toe and not only for mourning, hence there were immediate followers. Black has dominated the cermonial, religious, academic and legal world but here we see another use of the Black. Beeing as dominant as The Duke was, the Black now spread itself over the modern world. We see it in the Spanish nobel society (both men and women) in the 16th centuries and onwards, well Spain also developed a very high quality textile industry and produced of course the famous velvet. The city of Sabadell became center for the textile industry and produce the absolut highest quality wool and does so still today. During 17th Century black is preferably worn by the upper class in Holland and laterite became common among the seductive women of the Belle Epoque era. Hence, being spread from dominating courts, favored by the ceremonial, legal and academic World, further to the Bourgeoisie, and worn by the seductive women of the Belle Epoque (of the late 19th to early 20th Century the stage was set for the real breakthrough for the Black after The World War 1.
Unfortunately there are very few textilesamples kept from the early periods due to the corrosive effect the dying-process had upon the textiles at the beginning.
This is the scenario: The Black Edwardian dresses sometimes heavily decorated with black jet stones laces and frills along with the ridingsuits is the fashion for the period, all in timeglass shape. The rule of the society is that black is reserved as mourning colour. The culture climate is bubbling everywhere especially in Paris with it´s “Vie Decadante”. (see my blog about René Lalique). Due to heavy losses during the World War I the recommendation for women is to achieve a “stand-by” dress in black due to its practical use. Practical since the dust and dirt didn’t show on the black and the mourning amongst people was gigantic. Paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec shows danses in the Black and Red (1895 Marcelle Lender) indicating the Black is used outside mourning.
Madame X by John Singer Sargent is another keypainting showing the Black beeing used for pleasure. There are traces of the expression `little black dress´ in the literature from 1902 (Henry James: The Wings of Dove) and historians will state that the Little black dress was born around 1900 and not being an invention totally dedicated to Coco Chanel. I am willing to agree from varoius spectras and due to the social climate the Black was already worn outside the mourning frame. We can also see analyzies of the black frock in several Magaines from this era around 1900 (Lady´s Magaine 1903).
A key moment is the Black Ascot 1910. Despite the mourning after the death of Edward VII, it was decided not to cancell the race, but to dictate the formal dress to be in black. This gave a tremendous opportunity for the Ladies to dress fashionably in Black, and so they did, which of course was the subject of debate in the press… as fashion allways is….The young women who did not care much about the mourning etiquettes ordered the fashion styles in black matt Courthauld crepe.
Lady Duff Gordon. It would be stupid not to mention her. She was the first to present fashion in parades (today’s catwalk), creating complete wardrobes for her clients and opening branches all over the western world. Being rebellious and strong, dressing the top society she was the predecessor of Chanel. Lady Duff-Gordon inspired many designers such as Ralph Laureen and of course .. she created eveningdresses in black out of the mourning frame before the World War I. Lady Duff Gordon´s empire included accessories, lingerie, perfumes long before Christian Dior and she is defenately the predecessor of Coco Chanel.
When the World War I ended there were a shortage of textile material, and the mourning criteria was changed not only because of the war but also due to the consequences of the Spanish Influenza, allowing the people to wear mourning-armbands in Black or Purple instead of full mourning dress. Black textile was used in the skirts which made it easier for women to move and use of the black dress and the black suit both for mourning and daywear was practical for all women. This transformation of the Black textile from a rigorous mourning outfit to an all around daywear cleared the way for the Black textile to establish itself as the most strongest classic in Fashion.
1919 Coco Chanel(1883-1971) embraces the Black and starts of her journey in fashion with the Black as one of her cornerstones. After the charitybal Le Bal des Petites Lits Blanches 1919 she begins to produce black dresses with small white details such as collar and cuffs. The dresses sold immensively. She was not alone, Fortuny, Schiaparelli, Poiret, Paquin they all created high fashion in Black. So stating that Chanel alone invented the little black dress is a bit risky although historians presumes that her first professional design 1913 was a black short dress to her friend Suzanne Orlandi. It was a demure velvet day-dress with a white petal collar according to Edmonde Charles-Roux ( Chanel and her World, 1981). Her childhood as an orphant and the death of her lover and patron Captain Arthur Capel cemented the Black forever in her Collections. To understand her importance in the history of Fashion note that Harper´s Bazaar 1915 wrote: “The woman who hasn´t at least one Chanel is hopelessly out of fashion”…
At the peak of black in fashion at that time The American Vouge published 1926 a sketch of a Black dress by Chanel describing it as ´The Chanel “Ford” -the frock that all the world will wear- is model “817” of black crêpe de Chine.
It was a plain dress with a round neck, calf- legnth , long sleeves and diagonalband on the front creating a cross with it´s center just below the waist.
” Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory”/Coco Chanel.
Mariano Fortuny(1871-1949). Natasha Rambova 1924 wearing a black Delpho by Fortuny.
It is a basic rule for all designers to proove that they master The Little Black Dress.
To be continued…
Pictures from top to bottom
Duc de Bourgogne
Marcelle Lender Toulouse-Lautrec
Madame X by John Singer Sargent
Chanel Black dress Smithsonian museum
Mariano Fortuny worn by Natascha Rambova
Frances Kennett: COCO CHANEL Liv och Kärlekar, 1989
Valerie Mendes: Dressed in Black, 1999