Closet Essentials: The Little Black Dress

As anyone who owns one knows, the little black dress is the most-reached-for thing in a woman’s wardrobe. Find out more about its history and read our styling tricks after the jump.

The little black dress, or LBD as we know it, dates back to the turn of the century, when black, mauve, and other dark colours were in vogue for women’s wear. With their aura of mystery, elegance, and class, black dresses were particularly popular for evening wear, alongside the brighter, more vibrant colours associated with the  folk-inspired fashions of Paul Poiret.

Madame X by John Singer Sargent, 1884

It wasn’t until the late 1920s, however, that the LBD proper was born. Crafted by legendary designer Coco Chanel, the new LBD was a simple, unadorned shift that was meant to be worn over an uncorseted figure, making it appropriate for both day and evening wear. With its clean, unfussy lines and lack of ornamentation, Chanel’s LBD was free of the class signifiers that Edwardian women’s fashion were designed to telegraph. It was a look that called attention to a woman’s elegance and dignity, not to her social class or wealth. As such, the LBD was a revolutionary development in fashion design.

Coco Chanel in her own design

Over the next few decades, the LBD remained a staple of women’s wardrobes across Europe and North America, enjoying a particular resurgence in the 1960s, when trendsetters Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy were frequently photographed in sleeveless black shifts. In more recent years, celebrities such as Kate Moss, Reese Witherspoon, and Angelina Jolie have continued to popularize different versions of the LBD.

Audrey Hepburn in “Sabrina”

Kate Moss

Chances are, you already have one or more little black dresses in your closet; owning several in different fabrics, or with different necklines and details, is never a bad idea. To get the most out of a single LBD, however, look for the following:

Perfect fit: The dress should flatter your waistline, arms, and hips – if you don’t feel great in it, you probably won’t wear it. To ensure a flattering fit, visit a tailor or seamstress and ask him or her to help you find the perfect hem length and waist size.

Versatile material: A good-quality stiff cotton LBD can go easily from day to night with the addition of jewelry, shoes, and other accessories. Evening materials such as satin or velvet are less versatile.

Structure: Look for darts at the bust and seams at the waist for a structured garment that will flatter your body and hold its shape.

Lining: No VPLs, enough said.

Our fave ways to make your LBD look up-to-date for Fall 2010? Ditch the 2009 patterned stockings and try:

  • A leather or linen motorcycle jacket thrown overtop for a casual night out
  • Ankle boots and a giant cocktail ring, a la Kate Moss (above)
  • An evening trench or fur bomber with heels for something fancy
  • A vintage denim jacket and leather flats

Below, our picks for LBDs available online.

CFO Dress, $94.99, Modcloth

Monogram Silk Shift Dress, $99.50, Banana Republic

Vesper Shift, $238, Anthropologie

Stylein Kennedy Dress, $198, Sunday Brunch Dress Shop

For more on Coco Chanel and the little black dress, see my essay on the film, Coco Avant Chanel, here.

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