The Little Black Dress

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The Little Black Dress, or LBD, is one of the staples of the 20th century woman's wardrobe. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the LBD as "a simple black garment suitable for a woman to wear at most kinds of relatively formal social engagements." But where did this style come from?

Portrait of a Young Woman with a Fan by Rembrandt, 1633. In the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

According to the OED, the first use of the phrase was in 1902, in Henry James' The Wings of the Dove: "She might fairly have been dressed tonight in the little black frock..that Milly had laid aside." Of course, by the 20th century, women had been wearing black dresses for hundreds of years. Traditionally, black dye was one of the most expensive dyes and difficult colors to maintain, thus it served as a signifier of wealth. Many people were painted in black in the 16th and 17th centuries, but it wasn't because they were particularly conservative. It was to express their wealth, showing that they could afford the most costly garments.

Actress Joan Bennett wearing a Little Black Dress in 1928. Image: Sasha, Getty1.

Most people trace the modern idea of the Little Black Dress to the 1920s. The LBD is most famously associated with Coco Chanel, but it is worth noting that Chanel did not invent the Little Black Dress. She helped to popularize the LBD, it was an important part of her fashion aesthetic, and Chanel's Little Black Dresses are important to the history of fashion. But Chanel was neither the first nor the only designer to embrace the style in the 1920s. British designer Edward Molyneux was also crucial to the promotion of the LBD, and many designers had their own take on it. In 1926, Vogue published a picture of a Chanel LBD. Although it was not referred to as a "Little Black Dress", Vogue did call it "Chanel's Ford", implying that the style was as popular and indispensable as Ford's famous cars. Many historians consider this moment important in the history of the LBD.

Audrey Hepburn wearing a Little Black Dress by Givenchy in Breakfast at Tiffany's, 1961.

One of the most famous Little Black Dresses is the stunning dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Hepburn's famous dress was designed by her frequent collaborator, Hubert de Givenchy. Although this dress only appears during the opening credits of the movie, it has become one of the most iconic movie costumes of all time and helped to cement the LBD's place in history.

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