The Little Black Dress, revisited

Guest author, Joseph Hisey

Recently retired to Stratford, Ontario  from a career in teaching in the school of Animation, Art and Design at the Sheridan Institute of Design and Technology, to say that Joseph Hisey has a background in art and design history is putting it mildly. He is a Past Chair of the Costume Society of Ontario, a contributing correspondent for the Canadian Antique Collectors Association and a freelance costumer for local regional theatre and vintage clothing collector.

In April 2012, he plans to lead a costume and textile study tour to U.K. for members of the CSO and CSA. He also has a blog of his own For Fashion Historia, I asked Hisey if he would give us his point of view on the “Little Black Dress”

It seems that our interest in “The Little Black Dress” is as acute as ever. In response to the 50th anniversary of the film “Breakfast At Tiffany’s,” the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising are focusing on our infatuation with this cultural icon (on view through August 13, 2011). Although this fashion mainstay has been the stuff of editorials since the publishing industry began, contrary to popular beliefs, the use of black in fashion did not begin with the 18th century practice of mourning; black as a distinctive garment color can be documented back to the 15th century.

L to R: Hubert de Givenchy re-creation of the LBD from the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Courtesy of Hubert de Givenchy Couture. Valentina, c. 1947-1950, FIDM Museum Collection. Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, 1985; FIDM Museum Collection.

Since the Renaissance, it was the dye of choice for many who wanted to express their power and authority, hence its domination of the male business wardrobe. At the very least, this neutral hue obscured dirt before commercial cleaning services were available. The mordant used was expensive and unstable. Consequently, a “true” black became a status symbol. Artists such as the 16th century Italian, Bronzino, painted black garments worn by the scholarly and 17th century Dutch masters introduced us to the religious and political powers of a new, prosperous middle class. By the early 19th century, black in fashion re-emerged from a hundred-year absence in paintings by Goya, Ingres, Tissot, and Sargent, all experts in depicting contrasts of lace, satin, and velvets against the starkness of black.

Our assumption that black was reserved for mourning is perhaps due to the influence of Queen Victoria and the influence she had on Western society. Regarded as exotic, with connotations associated with the Spanish court, the appetite for black became more pervasive by the second quarter of the 19th century. Fashion journals, such as Le Folet in France, described its use by the late 1840s for evening wear, as recorded by Ingres in several of his portraits. Whether this was the choice of the artist or the client, we will probably never know. In her book, Ingres in Fashion, Aileen Ribeiro dedicates an entire chapter to the black dress and the artist’s penchant for it.

In Whistler, Women and Fashion, authors Susan Grace Galassi and Helen M. Burnham go to great lengths to discuss the impact of the black dress from a portrait of Lady Meux, painted in 1881. Ambiguous at best, Whistler’s representation of her black velvet dress is defined more by the contrast of the white fur garment draped around her figure, than by the details revealed through his brushwork. Her jewels highlight her status and affluence, and provide a source of contrast that is otherwise not apparent in the image.

By the 20th century, the simple black dress became a standard in the fashion world. Exposure through the press and popular films elevated it to “must have” status. Edith Head was credited with the title, “costume supervisor” on Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and the dress created by Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly caused a sensation and demand for this fashion staple. So ingrained in our psyche is this dress that at auction, in 2006, one of three working copies by Head brought an astounding $923,187.00!

Perhaps then, this is the success of “The Little Black Dress.” It remains mysterious, ineffable, and possesses a fashion allure that extends beyond gender or class. Dress it up or dress it down, “The Little Black Dress” is truly a chameleon in the closet.”

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