“Scheherezade is easy; a little black dress is difficult.”
– Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel
Almost every female and sometimes even male wardrobe accommodates at least one LBD (little black dress). The idea of the LBD is often ascribed to Gabrielle ”Coco” Chanel, who might have renegotiated the concept of dress by putting it into the contemporary context and giving it a right modern lustre. It started with an illustration of Chanel’s little black dress of so called Model T published in American Vogue in 1926. The magazine described the garment as “The Chanel “Ford” by comparing it to – popular at that time – Ford’s shiny black motor car that guaranteed the quality.
However, the prototype of the garment was, in a certain way, a mourning dress. Until the end of the 19th century, a widow had to dress in mourning for about two and a half years (the final six months could other discreet colours be worn). Stringent rules were applicable not only on codes of dress but also behaviour. Décolletage was a faux pas during the day and colour choices were dictated by the age and situation of the wearer.
A real rule breaker of its time was the portrait painting Madame X (Madame Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau) by John Singer Sargent, shown at the Salon in Paris in 1884. It chocked the audience by the erotic suggestion personified in the pale-skinned aristocratic woman wearing a revealing black dress. The image of the black dress as a mourning dress was fatally challenged, adding an adultère touch to it. Soon, for an obvious reason, the painter had to leave Paris.
The First World War made its statement and dressed women in more simple dresses. As Etherington Smith in Patou expressed it, “There scarcely was any difference between the dress of a child of eight or a woman of eighteen, thirty or sixty.” By the mid-twenties women were gaining a new “jazz age” independence in their lives and, as a result, also in the mode of dress. In 1924 Jean Patou, a French fashion designer and founder of the modern sportswear lable for women, creates a sleeveless dress with a low square neckline with clean and elegant lines.
Comparing the photo of Patou’s dress with the illustration of Chanel’s dress published in Vogue 1926, you cannot neglect the near resemblance between those two garments when it concerns the cut and lines. Meanwhile, the colour of Chanel’s dress – black – attached a clear distinction to the similarity. Hence, Chanel apparently had a great ability to take an idea, shape it for the modern woman and make it commercial. She was there before marketing! As Karl Lagerfeld once remarked, “But this is genius, no?”
Owing to the simplicity of the model, the dress was also easy to copy. What actually the burgeoning ready-to-wear market rapidly did. In fact, Chanel never resisted the wholesale copying of her couture clothes, seeing it as an additional publicity. Thus, Mademoiselle Chanel did create a new value for the already existed black dress by turning it into an authentic uniform of a woman of taste. Chanel might be considered as the one who actually created the modern woman of taste by means of LBD. Thus, the garment can fairly be interpreted as a certain “Bauhaus” of modern and postmodern aesthetics of fashion, giving the latter a simplicity and creating a completely new intimate long-lasting realtionship between the modern woman and her black dress.