Next month, the little blackdress - brain-child, of course, of Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel - celebrates its 80th birthday. It is an auspicious occasion for all those who would rather not dress like the proverbial Christmas tree: a minimal, understated and self-proclaimed 'clean-up operation', courtesy of the woman who, in her day, did more for the contemporary woman's sense of style, perhaps, than any other.
Although today, Chanel, as a label, is hardly the most democratic of concerns - even by designer-fashion standards, it is inordinately expensive - that house's founder gave the world the LBD precisely with that in mind. In November 1926, French Vogue published a sketch of the Chanel petite robe noire in its original incarnation, labelling it the ultimate 'uniform for the modern woman'. It was cut in matt black crÃªpe, had a high neckline, long, narrow sleeves, and stopped just above the knee. Unusually for its time - statement dressing was then, as now, a rather more ostentatious affair - it had no collar, no buttons and neither embroidery nor any other surface embellishment.
On the other side of the Atlantic, American Vogue dubbed the dress 'Chanel's Ford Model T'. Both the garment and the automobile were sleek, standardised and intended to be accessible to the masses, and, for the first time, in the case of the former, the woman would wear the dress, rather than vice versa. The little black dress was intended by the designer to be worn during the day, and to be made individual by its wearer.
Not everyone was impressed. Paul Poiret - Chanel's arch-rival and a man for whom opulence was key - pronounced the little black dress the 'mis-erabilism of luxuryâ¿¦ small, undernourished and telegraphic'. And one newspaper lamented at the time: 'No more chest, no more waist, no more rear'. But then, that was precisely the point. This was not a fashion statement aimed at a woman happy to be arm-candy, but for a more independent spirit who dressed only for herself.
Despite any detractors, for Chanel, who famously once said, 'Always take off, never add on', there was no going back. She was entirely confident that this new, and emancipated mindset would catch on. She was not alone in her way of thinking, after all. From the International Style of Le Corbusier, to the aforementioned Ford motor car, simplification was the way forward for all the great designers of the time.
As far as fashion was concerned, meanwhile, and with more practical concerns in mind, during the inter-war, make-do-and-mend era, the average amount of fabric required for a dress shrank from 19-and-a-half yards to a mere seven. The little black dress fitted this brief to perfection.
Since that time, the little black dress has been upheld as the epitome of modern glamour, the perfect sartorial solution to all kinds of fashionable outings, from ultra-smart daytime occasions to cocktails and formal black-tie. Gloria Swanson's black satin dress in Tonight or Never - designed by Chanel herself - was as formidable as might be expected. Later, for Audrey Hepburn - dressed by Hubert de Givenchy for both Breakfast at Tiffany's and Sabrina - the little black dress was the height of elegance.
Fast-forward to the 1980s, and Azzedine AlaÃ¯a created the perfect little black dress for the woman who wanted to show off her immaculate, gym-honed body. Worn by every supermodel worth her credentials, this appeared most famously in the video for Robert Palmer's 'Addicted to Love', where a backing group of bored and beautiful models - hair pulled tightly back, lips painted bright red - all were dressed in little black dresses to suitably spectacular effect.
In reality, none of these little black dresses might readily be described today as either entirely accessible or even remotely democratic. Best leave that side of things to the omnipresent Victoria Beckham. It is no coincidence that, in Spice World: The Movie, the 'little Gucci dress' that 'Posh' insists upon wearing is, in fact, a little black Gucci dress designed, of course, by the 'man in black', Tom Ford. Then there's Kylie Minogue and Nicole Kidman (Chanel again), Kate Moss (Balenciaga)â¿¦ The list goes on.
And while these women of varying degrees of style and substance are not always easy to emulate, there are few women who could not identify with their style when dressed in this most chic and simple of garments.
Perhaps ironically, the little black dress now finds its way on to more than its fair share of red carpets. Mademoiselle Chanel would no doubt not be entirely amused by such unashamedly attention-seeking interpretations of the originally studiedly austere dress. In our proud-to-be-sparkling times, however, only very few designers are brave enough to adopt such a pared-down aesthetic. The Belgian designers Martin Margiela and Raf Simons (who is the women's wear designer at Jil Sander) being two notable exceptions.
Finally, of course, there are the myriad variations of the little black dress that are shown each and ever season on the Chanel catwalk, now presided over by the esteemed couturier, Karl Lagerfeld. In his hands, the little black dress is routinely sent out to suit all tastes, shapes and sizes, embellished with the finest Chantilly lace or crystals; short, mid-calflength or skimming the knee. It can be sweet and voluminous in silk chiffon, organza or tulle. Or it can be strict and narrowly tailored, the ultimate designer status symbol for a woman who knows better than to show off wealth or beauty in an overexuberant manner.
In an ideal world, then, every woman should own a little black dress. And that, of course, would have made Mademoiselle Chanel rather proud.Reuse content