The Little Black Dress Phenomenon

The Little Black Dress Phenomenon

“When a little black dress is right, there is nothing else to wear in its place.”

by Edith Piaf

Piaf said it best when she used to perform wearing the iconic fashion staple, the little black dress. The little black dress became a worldwide essential in everyone’s wardrobe, especially for women because of how adaptable and simple the garment is. But, how did the little black dress become an icon? 

Before Coco Chanel

Before Coco Chanel graced American Vogue with the signature look, let’s talk about why it is the “black” little dress. Historically, black is a color that represents wealth. Why is this so? In the 16th and 17th century, it was very expensive to produce the color of fabric because of its rich pigment and its origins from oak galls. For instance, oak galls are made of plant tissue and insects produce a chemical that interferes with the average plant growth cycle. Also, the oak gall can produce the permanent black pigment along with deep purples and blues.


Then, during the Romantic era, in the 19th century, black was more commonly known to have a melancholic vibe, along the lines with death, despair, and magic. Furthermore, the Victorian era is when the color became known in certain fashion staples for specific reasons: most of them we know of today. For example, the idea of wearing black to funerals and widows wearing black started in this era. Now, Coco Chanel changed how black is viewed in a women’s closet in the early 20th century…

Coco Chanel and the Little Black Dress

On the 1926 American Vogue cover, Coco Chanel debuted the black little dress and gained immediate attraction from women and the fashion industry! For context, Coco Chanel was a French fashion designer who created the Chanel brand. She also popularized the casual chic style after World War I. In addition, Coco Chanel’s version is a calf-length dress with a few lines across the bodice. Furthermore, the original little black dress was calf-length because during the flapper era, it was common to rebel the late 19th century dress designs. Since before the 1920s, women were required, by society, to have their dresses with high necklines, corsets, and hemmed near the ankle. Overall, Chanel adapted a dress that suited the times. 

1950s and the Little Black Dress

The femme fatale is the film archetype that celebrated the black little dress. Before, black was used for wealth or death, now it is used to express danger and femininity. For example, in the image below, the dress is now styled with a halter-style design with a fitted waist and an hourglass silhouette. Femme fatale icons such as Rita Hayworth, Jane Greer, Kim Novak, and Jane Hussell graced the silver screen with the little black dress in their respective films.

As a matter of fact, Jane Russell’s appearance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) showcased an elegant version of the little black dress in the video below. Then, Russell’s version has a deep sweetheart neckline with sequins on the top. The tailored garment hit down to her ankles. She has a small slit to her calf to exude sexiness. Overall, the 1950s brought the sex appeal of the dress and helped capitulate the new meaning on a global scale through film noirs.

Photo by Cottonbro Studios on Pexels

Breakfast at Tiffany’s Impact

The most popularized version of the little black dress is the iconic rendition of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Firstly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s originally was a Broadway musical about a woman who falls in love with a writer that paid for her party services. Afterwards, Hepburn’s lead role gave resurgence to the little black dress back to its origins of elegance and glamor. For example, Hepburn’s rendition has the halter-top style with a semi-backless design. Then, her dress embodies the essence of Chanel’s rendition with a sleek, straight garment. With a pair of black gloves, chunky pearls, and small tiara, it became Hepburn’s signature look. To the world, it became an iconic fashion staple. Lastly, check out the opening sequence to see the dress! 

The little black dress became an iconic fashion staple by Chanel introducing why black is a color that represents elegance and polish. Furthermore, the 1950’s and 1960’s solidified how the dress represents danger, a new meaning to the garment. Lastly, with Hepburn’s signature look, it is safe to say that the dress is here to stay.

Featured Image by Photo by Michael Starkie on Unsplash

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