A Short History of the Little Black Dress
The Birth of the LBD
Perhaps more than any other piece of clothing, the little black dress is, women have been told, the essential, the one that will take you practically anywhere. And perhaps more than any other designer, Coco Chanel was the one who made it ubiquitous. She did not invent the concept, of course, but according to Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life (by Justine Picardine, $40, amazon.com), “the little black dress was not formally identified as the shape of the future until 1926, when American Vogue published a drawing of a Chanel design.… It was an apparently simple yet elegant sheath, in black crêpe de Chine, with long, narrow sleeves, worn with a string of white pearls; and Vogue proved to be correct in the prediction that it would become a uniform.…” Contrast that description with these more elaborate dresses from 1925.
Note the narrowed silhouette and shorter hemline of this layered creation with a semi-sheer top.
Actress Joan Bennett in a more stereotypical flapper ensemble, a tiered Charleston-style dress and cloche hat.
An evening dress from that same year: handkerchief-hemmed, sleek, and modern.
Renowned entertainer Josephine Baker wears a shorter skirt adorned with peacock feathers.
The ’30s would bring a return to softer, feminine cuts. Full, flowing hems once again fell below the calf. That asymmetrical neckline still looks modern.
This glamorous look may have been influenced by Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who loved embellishment as much as she did strong shoulders.
A meticulously tailored LBD as worn by the Duchess of Windsor, as famous for her sense of style as she was infamous for her love life.
Minimalism and practicality prevailed during the war years; silhouettes became simple, boxy, and functional, with a military feel to their squared shoulders.
Postwar, the fashion world took a new turn with Christian Dior’s legendary New Look: wasp waist, lavishly full skirt, as with this knocked-off version.
Two years after he introduced the New Look, Dior narrowed his skirts—like his velvet-and-satin cocktail dress here—hinting at the lean sheaths to come.
The sleek sheath—this one by Dior again—would be one of the shapes that dominated the ’50s.
A plunging neckline and a pencil-slim skirt combine for a dramatic cocktail dress.
A graceful mid-decade dress harks back to the look that revolutionized fashion almost a decade before.
Marilyn Monroe—hand in hand with new husband Arthur Miller—in a wool-crepe Galanos cocktail dress with a bare chiffon midriff.
A gorgeous pouf of a dress from Paris.
Mademoiselle Chanel, the celebrated couturier herself, puts the finishing touches on a late-’50s design.
Audrey Hepburn in what might be filmdom’s most famous LBD, designed by Hubert de Givenchy for Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Chanel’s influence is seen in the multiple ropes of pearls piled atop a little black dress (the bouffant perhaps inspired by then–first lady Jacqueline Kennedy).
Though the photograph is from the mid-’60s, Sophia Loren would be just as stylish wearing this outfit today: leopard-print hat, accessorizing brooch, timeless black dress.
The 1960s also ushered in the era of the mini, like this beaded chiffon number. Eventually hems soared so high they had no place to go but down.
Liza Minnelli attends the Academy Awards with her father wearing a simple, sexy wrap style that presages the slinky disco dresses in the offing.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis chooses a more elaborate black dress for dinner at the fashionable La Côte Basque. Mrs. Onassis would be seen in the dress on a number of occasions; she didn’t believe in retiring an outfit after being photographed in it once.
Blondie’s Deborah Harry puts some rock spin on the little black dress—extra emphasis on the little.
A bit of 1980s excess at the House of Chanel, under the direction of Karl Lagerfeld, who is widely credited with reinvigorating it.
Almost 30 years after the release of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Iman elegantly updates the look with a sleek gown and an equally sleek updo.
Naomi Campbell on the catwalk for Chanel, modeling Lagerfeld’s brief take on the LBD. Mademoiselle herself resisted raising hemlines; in fact, she seemed to disapprove of miniskirts.
Lagerfeld wasn’t the only one pushing limits. Here, Elizabeth Hurley wears—sort of—Gianni Versace’s notorious version of the fashion standard.
Princess Diana raised eyebrows with this stunning LBD—her so-called revenge dress—but not for the first time. The low-cut black gown she’d worn in her public debut as Prince Charles’ fiancée verged on the scandalous for its serious décolletage.
With her chic sensibility, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy epitomizes spare elegance.
Calista Flockhart’s dress is a step back to another time, recalling the luxurious skirts and lowered hems of the New Look.
At the other end of the LBD spectrum, Kate Moss’s minimalistic interpretation is nothing if not edgy.
Madonna is almost demure in latter-day Christian Dior.
Michelle Obama wears a lovely, ladylike Azzedine Alaia dress with a modernized ’50s silhouette.
Penelope Cruz shows everything old is new again: a gorgeously simple sheath with a below-the-knee hem.
One of the most talked about dresses of the year, Heidi Klum’s very little black dress.