Fashion #TBT How the “little black dress” went from mourning to evening

Coco Chanel showing the world how to wear her original Little Black Dress, 1926
Coco Chanel showing the world how to wear her original Little Black Dress, 1926
\r\n\r\nIt would not be an understatement if I said that, before the 1920’s, wearing a black dress for anything other than a funeral and during a period of mourning would be “in bad taste.”  Yet it was in the 20’s that Coco Chanel, who had already caused significant changes to the way women dressed, would upend so many time-honored mourning traditions when she designed a simple little black dress to be worn as evening wear…..\r\n\r\nNow, it wasn’t that women didn’t wear black at all for anything other than funerals.  Early business attire for a young working woman might consist of a black skirt and a white midi blouse.  But she might not wear an all black ensemble with hat, blouse and coat.  Even department store workers, who, in the early days, wore black frocks, also wore white or ecru lace collars to dissuade people from thinking they were attending a funeral.\r\n\r\nIt was in 1926 that Chanel debuted her simple little black dress of silk crepe de chine, accessorized with long strings of fake pearls and white enamel cuff bracelets.  Chanel thought that having a simple frock would be both flattering and practical for many women.  After all–and as we all know now–a simple change of accessories can change the entire “look” of a little black dress.\r\n\r\nIn a short period of time–perhaps less than a fashion season– women were finding ways of incorporating this little revolution into their wardrobes. And by the 1950s’  the little black dress at a cocktail party or for a night on the town would be a sign of style and sophistication.\r\n\r\nYet did the significance of a black dress for mourning completely  disappear?  It all depends.  In the early 21st century one is just as likely to see all or most mourners in jeans or  trousers as one is to see men in black suits and women in conservative black dresses.  We are a casual society where there are few , if any, customs  regarding proper mourning attire….something many of our grandparents and great-grandparents would find rather odd and, dare I say,  disrespectful.\r\n\r\nThere’s lots of little black dress history on the Internet, but to find out more about the black dress in the context of mourning and mourning customs, you may want to attend this new exhibition on mourning clothing and customs from the 19th and early 20th centuries at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Also, the Costume and Textile Department at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT, has a small, yet impressive collection of mourning wear from the Civil War era, and a comprehensive history of the complicated mourning customs as they related to women’s manner of daily dress.*\r\n\r\n\r\n*It seems that the customs and rules of mourning dress were primarily for women. Men, it seems, were exempt from any restrictions on their manner of dress and comportment in a time of mourning.

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