The Little Black Dress

I’m out of town, delivering a German Shepherd to rescue, so please enjoy this article from my website.

Jacques Griffe, late 1940s

Black had been worn throughout Victorian times as the color of mourning, but in the 1910s, black made the leap from mourning to fashion.  In 1910, British subjects mourned the death of King Edward VII, and the wearing of black became commonplace.  Soon afterward, World War I began and with it women needed a simpler, more modern dress, unfortunately often in black.

But it was in the 1920s that black gained popularity as a fashion color, especially in dresses.  From the beginning of the decade black dresses were offered, most commonly for evening.  According to many sources, Coco Chanel “invented” the little black dress in 1926, when she introduced a line of black dresses made from wool jersey and silk.  But Chanel had been making similar dresses since 1915, and by 1926 many French couturiers were designing dresses in black.

Claire McCardell, mid to late 1940s

It was Mademoiselle Chanel who coined the phrase “little black dress.”  In a well-known criticism a rival, Schiaparelli or perhaps, Poiret, Chanel quiped, “Scheherazade is easy, the little black dress is difficult.”

Despite prohibition in the US, women were drawn to the little black cocktail dress in the late 1920s and early 30s.  By then the little black dress was firmly established as a sophisticated style that could move easily from afternoon into evening.  This was very much in keeping with the way modern women were living.

Ask any vintage collector or dealer what color was most popular for cocktail or dinner dresses in the 1940s and 50s, and I’m sure the answer will be “black.” Black continued its fashion reign through the beginning of the 1960s, when perhaps the most famous little black dresses of them all appeared – the Givenchy designs worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Frank Starr, early 1960s

In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, wild color and the pantsuit seemed to have killed the little black dress, but it burst back onto the fashion scene in the 1980s and has been wildly popular ever since.  Today a black dress is often considered to be a “safe” choice.  At many functions almost every woman will be wearing a black dress.

So why has the little black dress had such staying power?  I could write out an answer, but I’ll let fashion writer Mabel D. Erwin do it for me. Her thoughts, circa 1949:

Black is a good city color. We become less tired of it than any other. It can be worn longer without appearing dated. It shows off a beautiful face…It is the perfect background for jewelry and really nice assessories. It may be a litle too mature for college girls but with right lines and accessories it need not be.


Filed under Vintage Clothing

9 responses to “The Little Black Dress

  1. Black is the base …. about it, you can build a pat-colored outfit and make it bold, elegant, sophisticated …. what you choose … Love your post, a lot of information so pleasant ….


  2. Posts on black dresses are always in fashion. Just wondering if these lovelies are yours?

    (BTW-hoping your errand kept you away from the many brick downtowns that were shook up today)


    • Jen, the Griffe and the McCardell are mine. I sold the Frank Star years ago.

      I was in Columbia, SC, yesterday, and did not feel the quake. It’s a good thing, as the buildings I was prowling around in at the time of it would have creaked like crazy. It was felt here in WNC, but we have tremors on an irregular basis, so people were not very surprised.


  3. Great post and pics!
    In my own research, I found that black wasn’t always used for mourning towards the later end of the Victorian era. It was the favoured colour of Lady Colin Campbell (my specialism) and worn in her famous portrait by Boldini, which you can see at
    She often chose to wear black in the evenings, not as mourning, but because it suited her, and adorned it simply, with an orchid or string of pearls.
    However, she wasn’t your average Victorian!


  4. Pingback: Vintage Tips, Tutorials and Links Round-Up | Penny Dreadful Vintage

  5. My sources:
    Carter, Ernestine, Magic Names of Fashion. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:Prentice Hall, 1980.

    Koda, Harold and Bolton, Andrew
    Chanel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005

    Erwin, Mabel D.,
    Clothing for Moderns. New York: Macmillan, 1949


  6. Pingback: How I Collect – 1940s | The Vintage Traveler

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