The Secret History of the Little Black Dress

“I imposed black; it’s still going strong today, for black wipes out everything else around.”— Coco Chanel

Paris, 1926: The sun rises over the Eiffel Tower, guarding the awe-inspiring city of lights, and the familiar smell of nicotine diffuses in the air, as early morning Parisians flock the narrow streets and glamorous avenues rushing off to work — a diverse job market created by the expanding markets of radio, automobiles, cinema, aviation, electricity, fashion, literature, theatre, dance, and art. Sounds of car horns from impatient taxi drivers and incitements from street vendors emerge as intellectual men, wearing slim fitted suits with polished oxfords, and women, dressed in flappers and ostentatious hats, crowd the cafes and cabarets of Montparnasse and Montmartre, melting pots of creative geniuses, to share opinions on artistic styles and ideological theories. As Coco Chanel approaches the atelier, 31 Rue Cambon, lost in her own world hidden behind dark glasses and a lit cigarette, magazine stands receive the October edition of American Vogue, launching a global revolution with the publication of Mademoiselle’s most influential innovation: the Little Black Dress.

The Little Black Dress’ Debut

American Vogue published Chanel’s illustration of the Little Black Dress, or LBD, calling it “Chanel’s ‘Ford,’” comparing it to Henry Ford’s black democratic Model T automobile, due to its simplicity, economic practicality, and accessibility for “women of all social classes.” Following World War One, women had adjusted to working outside the home with more frequency, getting dirty in the industrial world. At the same time, the Lost Generation — the Génération au Feu, the “Generation in Flames,” as it was commonly known in France — set the precedent of women’s fashion during the Roaring Twenties in which excess and nonconformity were the norm. Before Chanel, the fashion industry emphasized constricting corsets, oversized hats, long skirts, and expensive fabrics such as silk embellished with unnecessary embroidery. Recognizing the lack of versatility in female fashions and their impracticality for the emerging business woman, Chanel sought to create clothing that was economically feasible with clean, elegant lines and straight-lined silhouettes unconstricting to a woman’s body, yet still powerful in that every woman “could walk around like [a millionaire],” Chanel explained. As a result, as philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky noted, she transformed jersey, an inexpensive everyday fabric, originally considered as “unsuitable for haute couture,” into the basis for high fashion — perfect for the ‘everywoman.’ By dropping waistlines, raising hemlines, and using square necklines for designs of an easily, adjustable fabric, Chanel’s impeccable taste introduced the Little Black Dress, allowing women of every socioeconomic status to be “chic as well as comfortable” by complimenting French values of elegance with “modern ideals of freedom and fun.”

“Fashion is always of the time in which you live. It is not something standing alone. But the grand problem, the most important problem, is to rejuvenate women.”— Coco Chanel

Chanel’s determined personality and drive in creating the Little Black Dress, an act of rebellion against the rigidity and strictures of current women’s fashion, can be attributed in part due to her corrupted childhood — impoverished, unstable, and mentally, physically, and emotionally abused. “Born on a journey,” Chanel told an American reporter, on 19th August 1883 in a poorhouse in Saumur to Albert and Eugenie, an unmarried couple of itinerant market traders, Gabrielle Chasnel — misspelled due to a clerical error on her birth certificate — entered a destitute community. On the day of Eugenie’s death, Gabrielle’s father had abandoned his family, leaving his daughters to watch the detriments of tuberculosis, pneumonia, and poverty take their mother’s life. How long the girls were in the room with their dead mother is unknown, though the trauma of the situation must have been excruciating, for Albert shortly returned only to take Gabrielle and her sister to an orphanage in Aubazine ran by nuns, where Gabrielle would remain for the next eighteen years. Thoroughly unhappy, Gabrielle “fed on sorrow and horror” wanting to kill herself “I don’t know how many times.” However, despite her misery, the orphanage provided the foundation of Coco Chanel; the nuns taught Gabrielle how to sew and the authority a female acquires by hemming and seaming her own clothing. Gabrielle took inspiration from the dress of the nuns — “their throats edged in white material, in contrast to their black dresses.” Though confined within the poverty-stricken walls of the religious orphanage, Gabrielle determined to create a new image of herself, one that embodied all she was deprived of — lux, decadency, sophistication — , and did so via classic fashion designs beginning with the legendary Little Black Dress.

31 Rue Cambon — Paris, France.

Chanel had one great love. Around 1905, she had been living at Royallieu, the stables and house owned by her former lover, for several years when a “dashing English polo-player” showed up one day to look at his horses. Arthur “Boy” Capel was smitten — intrigued by Chanel’s ambitions, talent, and brilliant mind. The two lovers moved to Paris and chose a flat on the elegant Avenue Gabriel. Believing in her vision and brilliance, Boy Capel financed the opening of Chanel Modes at 21 Rue Cambon, improving Chanel’s fashion business and thus her social status. As enamored as he was by Chanel, Boy Capel was widely known as an “enthusiastic philanderer” with a craving for aristocracy, so it was of no surprise to Chanel when he married into the Scotland court. Chanel’s affair with him continued, however, for he “trained me for happiness.” On 22nd December 1919, Captain Arthur Capel was killed in an accident while driving from Cannes to Paris. Whilst in mourning, six months after his death, she received a visit from a Hindu gentleman, who gave her complete faith Capel was “watching over her, still offering her his protection.”

“I have a message for you, Mademoiselle. A message from someone you know… This person is living in a place of happiness, in a world where nothing can trouble him any longer,” the gentlemen said to Chanel.

Her faith in Capel restored, Chanel displaced her state of mourning and sadness with that of liberation and creativity, illustrating their juxtaposition in a simple, little black dress. During the 1920s, the color black expressed the collective grief and devastation of the war. Vogue began publishing articles on fashionable mourning, subtle at first, “mixing them in with outfits of stylish black.” The illustrations emphasized black, modest dresses and minimal accessories with dark stockings or pumps. Drawn by its simplicity, Chanel sought to remove the depressing connotations associated with the color black. The debut of Chanel’s LBD in 1926 transformed the color of mourning into a celebration of chic. Vogue noted that Paris had been “restored to life after a long and tedious convalescence.” By not falling victim in the wreckage at the end of her affair with Capel, Chanel propelled into the Jazz Age, carrying other women with her in her wake, “out of the past and into the future, wearing black as a symbol of strength and freedom.”

Mourning fashion

Since its publication in 1926, the Little Black Dress has been manipulated many times in hopes of recreating the level of sophistication initially sown into its seams. Inspired by its ability to complement women of all body types, major Hollywood movie producers, famous celebrities, and high-fashion designers continue to feature various versions of the LBD for its chicness and powerful aesthetic. In 1961, Hubert de Givenchy unveiled his take on the little black dress in the famous movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, worn by Audrey Hepburn. Notable women such as Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy, Princess Diana, Kate Middleton, and Betty Bop are known for their iconic LBD styles — further evolving the closet staple in fashion.

Left to Right: Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Jacqueline Kennedy — iconic women wearing the iconic dress.

The birth of the Little Black Dress serves as constant reminder of the legacy Coco Chanel built and her influence on the culture she left behind. A dictator of taste, Chanel launched a revolution of female empowerment — emphasizing the importance of self-invention, fearlessness, success, femininity, and elegance. She did not start out with a mission statement, nor a roadmap for success, nor any of those “high-falutin’ concepts we associate with megamodern multinational success stories.” Critics acclaimed her transformation of women’s fashion and ascension in Parisian society, from impoverished orphan to dressmaker to couturière. The Chanel aesthetic is like the force in Star Wars, “surrounding, penetrating, and binding together the universe of fashion, now and forever.” Before she departed, Chanel gave an interview to New Yorker, and said: “Women have always been the strong ones of the world… They are the big, the strong, the wonderful.” Chanel’s legacy persists within the wardrobes and hearts of women, from the string of their pearls to the click of their heels, from their black jersey dress to their silk chiffon gown.

References:

Ginsburg, Madeleine. Paris Fashions: The Art Deco Style of the 1920s. London: Bracken, 1989. Print.

31, Rue Cambon.” Janet Flanner, The New Yorker. 14 Mar. 1931.

Miranda, Eugenia. From the Archives: Ten Vogue “Firsts”. Digital image. Vogue. Vogue, 31 Aug. 2012. Web. 8 Oct. 2016.

Davis, Mary E. Classic Chic : Music, Fashion, And Modernism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Picardie, Justine. Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life. It Books, 2010. Pgs. 14, 26, 36, 92.

Karbo, Karen. The Gospel According to Chanel. Skirt!, 2009. Pg. 62.

Bedikian, Sonia A. “The Death Of Mourning: From Victorian Crepe To The Little Black Dress.” Omega: Journal Of Death & Dying 57.1 (2008): 35–52. Professional Development Collection. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.