Chanel and the Little Black Dress

The Little Black Dress (or “LBD”) has become a staple within the wardrobes of women worldwide. Yet, few know it was the legendary designer Coco Chanel who championed the LBD movement, and fewer still can agree on Mademoiselle Chanel’s motivation for its creation.

The color black had come in and out of fashion by the turn of the 20th century, although it was still seen primarily as a color of mourning. Chanel was quite aware of this tradition, and two separate stories tie these notions together.

 The first story concerns Paul Poiret, Chanel’s primary rival in Parisian fashion design at the time. Seeing Poiret’s collection featuring riotous colors, Chanel disdained his garish displays and, to set her work apart from her competitor, used black instead. By including superior textiles and relaxed silhouettes, Coco remade the image of the woman who wore the black dress, and in keeping with the Roaring 20s, she continued to challenge fashion’s mores by raising hemlines and removing excess layers to create freer and more revealing looks. By Chanel’s vision, a woman in an LBD was independent, and made her own rules.

 By 1928, Paul Poiret passed Chanel on the street one day, wearing all black, and asked who she was in mourning for. With her usual acerbic wit, Chanel answered, “For you, Monsieur.”

 But, this tale might contain a less obvious underlying sense of truth. In 1919, Boy Capel, whom Chanel called the love of her life, died suddenly in a car accident. The LBD, she has purportedly said, was her tremendous grief spilling over into her other greatest love, her work. “I will make the world mourn for you,” she vowed to her lost love, and proceeded to dress women in black, in perpetuity.

 But, like everything with Coco, there are always more stories. Ever the pragmatic designer, Chanel argued that a simple black dress not only hid stains, but was multi-functional, easily transitioning from daytime wear to evening attire, all by changing one’s accessories.  Add a jacket for daytime, and swap the jacket for long gloves and a luxurious wrap, and a lady could be ready for the opera, all with minimal effort and still creating maximum effect. 

One more tale lingers in the legends of the LBD’s origins… Chanel was raised by nuns before becoming a seamstress in her youth, and some claim Chanel’s motivation for using black as a uniform harkens to her subconscious desire to return to her youth, and the caretakers she once knew.

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Published in: on November 4, 2009 at 7:30 am  Comments (2)  
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