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La Petite Robe Noire: a timeless uniform

In 1926 American Vogue published a picture of a short black dress designed by Coco Chanel with the name of ‘Chanel’s Ford’. Simple and accessible for women of most social classes, Vogue also wrote that it would become “a sort of uniform for all women of taste”.

After its launch in the 1920s as an unavoidable object in a woman’s wardrobe, the little black dress was largely adopted during the Great Depression from women across different social classes, thanks to its affordability and elegance. In fact, it required only two yards of fabric, as opposed to the ten or more yards necessary to fashion bustles; also the darker shades were more practical to work outside the home, not fearing the dirt of the industrial world. For the same reasons, it became a common uniform for civilian women entering the workforce during WW2, when the rationing of textiles was established.

Little black dress designed by Madame Handley-Seymour from a model of Coco Chanel. mid 1920/late1920. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert museum. ©Elizabeth Handley-Seymour CC BY NC

Hollywood’s influence on fashion in North America opened the way to the success of this particular dress. The Chanel’s baton was picked up by Christian Dior, who the petit robe noir as a landmark model for the development of his famous Corolle line, in 1947, demonsrating how the model was prone to modifications and updates. It was Audrey Hepburn who made the garment famous in its original design, wearing the one designed by Hubert de Givenchy in the iconic movie Breakfast at Tiffany in 1960s; Hepburn – and the movie itself – translated the petite robe noir into an icon of popular culture, making it the uniform of choice for women, mo matter the occasion, the space or the time.

"Artemise" Little black dress designed by Yves Saint Laurent. Collection Fall/Winter 1959. Courtesy of Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. CC BY NC SA

However remaining a staple of wardrobes throughout the 1970s, it was the popularity of casual fabrics and the rise of business wear to fully bring back the little black dress into vogue in the 1980s with some ‘twists’: broad shoulders, peplum cut or other embellishments. Due to its being a symbol of glamourous and mysterious women with a strong character, it was adopted later in 1990s by the grunge culture in combination both with sandals or combat boots. In the late 1990s the new glamour trend led to new variations of the dress, culminating with the reemergence of the ‘original’- simple and, of course, full-black – version in the late 2000s.

Until 1920s women used to wear black dresses while mourning, but the simple-yet-elegant design kept by the little black dress through the years has signed the transition of black from a symbol of grief to a statement of high fashion. While it totally disappeared from funerals, it turned into the colour of official occasion, becoming a sartorial staple for most contemporary women.

Discover more glamourous samples of little black dress on the Europeana Fashion portal!

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