The History of the Little Black Dress

As much time as we spend curating our closets, trying to refine the image we project, each garment in our wardrobe is also a reflection — of the moment we’re living in, its social attitudes and expectations, of Hollywood trends, and even world-stage events. Remember when Meryl Streep enlightened us to the fashion industry’s complexities by deconstructing her intern’s bargain-bin sweater in The Devil Wears Prada? As Streep’s character’s takedown so poignantly demonstrated, one garment can contain multitudes — a fact that’s beautifully illustrated by a new exhibit at the Washington State History Museum on the little black dress.

Little Black Dress: A Fashion Evolution provides a deep dive into the history of an iconic staple of women’s fashion. Dreamed up in part as a nod to next year’s centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage, the exhibit spans 150 years of history and contains plenty of eyebrow-raising facts. For instance: Did you know that before the little black dress became a fixture of flappers during the Roaring ’20s, black was worn almost exclusively by servants and women in mourning? Or that in the late 1800s, dresses and their accompanying accessories could weigh up to 40 pounds? Through 37 dresses from 15 decades; a dazzling array of accessories; and an interactive display of fabrics, shoulder widths, and weights, Little Black Dress: A Fashion Evolution tells the story of one ubiquitous item that contains nearly two centuries of commentary on women’s changing social roles.

The Little Black Dress Through Time

Late 1800s

Black for Mourning

In the mid-to-late 1800s, black was a color worn by women on the margins — servants, mourners, and those considered “unvirtuous” by the community. After a woman’s husband passed away, she was expected to wear black — and only black — for a minimum of two years after his death. And yes: Men had their own mourning dress codes — but those lasted about three months.


Getting Shorter in World War I 

During The World War I, black became more common in everyday wear, but the wartime effort simplified designs. Because of wartime rations, fabric used in dresses decreased from an average of 19¼ yards to about 7 yards. Corsets also fell out of fashion, since the steel used to make them was needed to forge weapons. 


The Birth of the Little Black Dress

The modern little black dress was invented and popularized by none other than fashion legend Coco Chanel. When her stylish sketch of an LBD graced the cover of Vogue, Chanel plucked the black dress from its marginal connotations and elevated it to a wardrobe staple.


World War II

As more women entered the workforce, black dresses were a favorite due to their durability and excellence at hiding stains. Since wool and silk were needed for wartime uniforms, dresses were commonly made from rayon, cotton, and jersey, with sequins for a little extra sparkle.


Hollywood Glamour

It’s no accident that many of us associate the little black dress with Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. During this period, Hollywood successfully reshaped our notions of both the little black dress and the glamorous possibilities of single women’s lifestyles.


Individualized Styles

The little black dress underwent serious differentiation during this period, and thanks to the feminist movement, comfort prevailed. Minis, midis, and maxis, as well as vintage styles, were all in fashion.


Mass Globalization

During the ’90s, global manufacturing made the production of the little black dress more affordable. Styles from Africa, Latin America, and Asia all found their way into the LBD — though according to the exhibit, designs often went uncredited.


New Millennium

While the little black dress remains as popular as ever, millennial style shifts included throwbacks and more cutting-edge takes on the dress. During this period, we saw futuristic and vintage styles co-mingle.

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