Timeless classics: some things never go out of style

Natalie Finnigan explores the impressive history of the Little Black Dress, and the women who pioneered its prevalence on the fashion scene

Natalie Finnigan
6th December 2020

The LBD (little black dress)

This piece of fashion is so anchored in Western culture it has its own acronym: the LBD. Some may say Holly Golightly established the trend of the little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), but she only publicised what already existed. Vogue published Coco Chanel's original contemporary drawing in 1926, reinvented by Christian Dior after World War II, and was then immortalised forever by Hepburn in Givenchy glamour.

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Crêpe de Chine (silky fine fabric), narrow sleeves and a string of pearls accessorised Chanel's little black dress, branded 'Chanel's Ford'. This was a nod to Henry Ford and his T model car that would become intrinsic to everyone's daily lives: the LBD would become as standard as the car for all women's wardrobes. It was a simple, knee-length, straight-cut affair, in direct opposition to the exaggerated extravagance of flapper dresses with sequins and tassles.

The LBD was marketed as affordable elegance during the period of the Great Depression from 1929 - 1941, when most people could not afford to spend much money on luxurious clothing. When World War II struck, textiles and fabrics were rationed as essential items required to make uniforms for the armed forces, along with material needed to make products like tarpaulin and tyre components. Yet the LBD remained consistent, available and inexpensive. It was the dress for every woman, regardless of class or wealth.

Dior revolutionised the LBD with full skirts and cinched waists, renewing the dress with his 'New Look' unique trademark. He envisioned dresses 'to be "constructed", moulded on the curves of the female body' and accentuate its contours. The 'waist, the volume of the hips, and [...] the bust' are highlighted to emphasise the female form in his dresses, and the LBD was reinvented as a Hollywood statement of drama and performance.

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Holly Golightly's iconic black Givenchy dress cemented the LBD as a crucial moment in fashion history. The original dress was shorter but it was thought to show too much leg, so it was redesigned. Opening the film with Hepburn eating a croissant, drinking a coffee, window shopping Tiffany's jewellery and wearing a luxurious evening party dress sets out the film's narrative and her character, which is clearly established as stylish, luxurious, and very, very expensive.

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If the LBD needed any more endorsement, it got it from the one and only Princess Diana. Her 'revenge dress' made headlines when she stepped out in it following her highly public divorce from Prince Charles. The off-the-shoulder design by Christina Stambolian and high heels sent the message that Diana was made of stronger stuff than people thought, not to mention the fact the plunging neckline and open back was very much against the royal dress code. She clearly demonstrated her ex-husband's affair did not break her, but that she came back stronger and prepared to carry on with her life. Her accompanying sapphire and pearl necklace was originally a brooch gifted by The Queen Mother on her wedding day to Prince Charles: Diana had it remade into a choker and wore it with the 'revenge dress'. Diana - 1, Prince Charles - 0.

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From its initial conception, the LBD has served as an eye-catching, glamorous piece that conveys timeless sophistication. It is a staple that should appear in every woman's wardrobe, appropriate for any and every occasion. Whether it be an off-the-shoulder, backless or Hepburn-inspired design, there is a little black dress for everyone.

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