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Why Coco Chanel Created the Little Black Dress

The style icon created a… well…. style icon in 1926

A Coco Chanel Little Black Dress, released in 1926. (Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, gift of Mrs. Georges Gudefin)
smithsonian.com

The year was 1926: The month was October. The Roaring Twenties were in full swing when Vogue featured on its cover the first “little black dress” designed by Coco Chanel and ushered in the long reign of a fashion staple.

The magazine’s cover showed a drawing of a woman posing in pumps, pearls, a cloche and a long-sleeved black dress belted to a low waist. The magazine described the elegant garment as "The Ford," referring to the at-the-time insanely popular Model T. It also resembled the Model T in another sense–as Henry Ford said of his car, it was “available in any color… so long as it’s black.” In an era when dresses were a much more common daily item of clothing and they leaned towards fancy and colorful, the “little black dress,” as Vogue described it, was a new fashion horizon.

In the Victorian and Edwardian periods that preceded the '20s, simple black garments were more likely to be linked with the clothing of servants or people in mourning than to haute couture. In fact, even the act of wearing a plain dress in public was a departure from tradition. But like many other conventions of the world before World War I, these changed in the Jazz Age. In the 1920s, writes Deirde Clement for Zócalo Public Square, “revolutionary” wardrobe changes such as the introduction of sportswear into the American wardrobe resulted in a number of other shifts, producing the loose, unencumbered style of dress worn on Vogue’s cover.

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was one of the reasons for these changes. By 1926, her nontraditional (and French) approach to women’s wardrobes had already made her famous, writes Anka Muhlstein for The New York Review of Books. She used unconventional cloth–like jersey, which was unheard of in couture fashion–and unconventional cuts, often taking notes from men’s clothes. As a result of these innovations, she was an independent businesswoman with a showroom in Paris.

“Her intention for her 1926 garment was that it should be available to the widest possible market,” writes the BBC. “Her creation revolutionized fashion.” The little black dress made a bold statement both because it was black and because it was simple. But although Vogue compared the "LBD" to the Model T, Chanel’s Paris HQ was showing several different models of the little black dress that was going to make her even more famous–rather than the single, identical Model T that was rolling off American assembly lines by the millions.

Chanel “seemed to have a special knack for turning traditionally unacceptable ideas on their heads,” writes Colin Bissett for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “Black was, of course, the colour of mourning and familiar as day-wear for the many widows of France following the slaughter of the First World War and the recent Spanish flu pandemic.”

While other designers were turning to fancy, colorful clothes as an antidote to all this gloom, Chanel steered into it, he wrote, producing little black dresses whose “somewhat severe and simple lines were off-set by her signature accessories–a rope of large fake pearls, a fabric camellia or a plain cloche hat.”

Like Ford’s motorcars, the LBD has had many iconic incarnations since. Chanel’s design was just the beginning.

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