Little black magic: Return of the little black dress

The LBD is always a winner in the fashion stakes, and Balenciaga's take on it, although inspired by Fifties film-noir heroines, couldn't be more now, says Susannah Frankel

I wanted to do something more austere," says Nicolas Ghesquière, designer of the Balenciaga label. "Something strict. I thought it was interesting to play with the dark side of Balenciaga. That's not something I've ever really done since I've been at the label. I also wanted to play with the iconic Balenciaga black dress."

The really quite spectacular iconic Balenciaga black dresses with which Ghesquière chose to open his autumn/winter show in Paris, six months ago now, have gone on to become some of the most photographed of the current season. Moulded to the body, rounded at the hips, knee-length although split on one side to reveal a long, slender thigh, these, the designer says, are inspired by film-noir heroines and, specifically, Simone Signoret playing the murderous mistress in the 1955 Henri-Georges Clouzot film, Les Diaboliques. "The cut was more mature, the length was longer. It was more the idea of not showing than showing. And it was very architectural."

The femme-fatale tendencies that ran throughout this particular catwalk offering may have been part of the story, but the launch, this season, of the first Balenciaga Black Dress collection – to complement seasonal trouser, knitwear, silk and edition collections – must also have influenced the designer's decision to reintroduce such a classic garment in so high-profile a manner.

Comprising just 10 dresses a season – the subtly jewel-encrusted silk shift photographed here is one of them – inspiration comes from Ghesquière's own past glories, rethought in different weights of fabric and, of course, uniquely crafted in the inky hue. The timing of this particular sartorial proposition couldn't be better. The current season is positively awash with black – just as it is with grey – as fashion struggles to prove just how serious it really can be in response to the fact that the economy is in freefall.

Of course, there are those who might argue that wearing a canary-yellow ra-ra skirt might alleviate any sociopolitical malaise, but the broader view is that our clothes should be sober just now, luxurious but never ostentatiously so, and that the focus should be on fine design in the purest sense, as opposed to fashion folly. Nothing suits this mindset better than a beautifully conceived black dress, of course. Also, on a brighter note, as it is now officially the party season, for those who would rather not dress like the proverbial Christmas tree, the black dress is, now as ever, the simple but highly effective choice.

Any designer mindful of construction over and above embellishment will always be attracted to black as a colour. That goes for everyone from Cristobal Balenciaga himself, who was responsible for many of the black dress's finest moments in the mid-20th century, to Rei Kawakubo, of Comme des Garçons, who made black the colour for anyone even remotely interested in fashion to see and be seen wearing to this day. A plain black fabric, the argument goes, focuses the eye on the outline of a garment, emphasising a strong silhouette, as opposed to allowing any interested party's gaze to dance merrily across its surface in restless search of eye candy. Black is also grand – this was the colour favoured by the grandees of the Spanish court in the 16th century – and for that reason it continues to exude a certain authority.

The world has Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel to thank for the introduction of the simple black dress to fashion in the first place – it was branded "little" as the overblown garments that preceded it seemed positively voluminous by comparison. Chanel's reasons for creating it were, in fact, democratic rather than status-driven or technical. It was in November 1926 that French Vogue published a sketch of the Chanel "petite robe noire" in its original incarnation, labelling it "the ultimate uniform of the modern woman". It was cut in matt black crepe – a fabulously chic fabric – had a high neckline, long, narrow sleeves and stopped just above the knee. It was devoid of collar, buttons, beading or embroidery. The idea was that any woman could wear one and dress it up – or down – in her own way. With this in mind, American Vogue compared the dress to the Ford Model T – both car and dress were sleek, standardised and intended for the masses.

Not everyone was enamoured with this new-found understatement. Paul Poiret – Chanel's arch-rival, and the man whose opulent and exotic aesthetic she was reacting against at the time – said that the little black dress represented "the miserabilism of luxury – small, undernourished and telegraphic". How wrong he was. Chanel's mantra, "Always take off, never add on", remains the byword for contemporary luxury to this day.

The particular strength of the new Balenciaga collection is that, while the dresses are certainly far from ordinary – one may be ultra-short with a peplum and a scalloped edge, another might have a sweetly ruffled bodice and matching frilly, knee-length skirt – they are not so identifiable, or, indeed, self-consciously fashionable, as the Balenciaga main line. Just like Chanel's little black dress before them, then, they are designed to be styled by their wearer, who might choose to let them speak for themselves – they are certainly well-thought-out enough to do so – or to embellish them however they see fit. It's small wonder, with all this in mind, that they are the fashion insider's choice du jour.

The best way to wear a little black dress for now, though, is to play it down, safe in the knowledge that dressing like the lead in a sultry French cinema classic is rarely going to be a sartorial faux pas, whatever the prevailing mood.

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