Exhibition Archives: Little Black Dress

As many of you will know, in place of a permanent collection, the Fashion and Textile Museum hosts a diverse programme of temporary exhibitions. So, while we’re disappointed that you won’t be able to explore our current exhibition for a while, we are excited to invite you to digitally explore our exhibition archive, starting with one of our earliest exhibitions; Little Black Dress. 

“You can wear black at any time

You can wear it at any age

You may wear it to almost any occasion

A little black frock is essential to a woman’s wardrobe”

Christian Dior, 1954

Trends come and go, but for over 90 years the Little Black Dress has remained a powerful fashion icon; a constant on the catwalk, red carpet, and in many women’s wardrobes. Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor famously said in its praise, ‘When the Little Black Dress is right, there is nothing else to wear in its place.’

The Little Black Dress is the chameleon of the fashion world, being the safe choice or a rebellious statement, sexy or demure, practical yet stylish. As the writer Edna O’Brien astutely recognised, the special black dress is both ‘chic and armour’.

The versatility of the garment is praised by fashion journalists, played with by fashion designers, exploited by advertisers, and beloved by women. Fashion magazines have long instructed their readers in the art of dressing up or down the LBD. Vogue stated in 1939, the simple Little Black Dress is ‘that maid of all work’, transforming itself for any occasion.

The appeal of the LBD is in equal measures its versatility and timeless glamour, inextricably linked to women such as Coco Chanel, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Hurley. The glittering associations of the LBD have been appropriated to sell products as diverse as instant mash potato, marketed as ‘Mash with Panache’, cigarettes, perfume and Guinness – the little black drink.

Little Black Dress celebrates the role of this iconic garment in women’s lives and fashion history. The exhibition charts the development of the LBD from the 1920s to the present day. It explores the stories behind women’s favourite LBDs and highlights the creativity of contemporary British designers in reinventing the genre.

The displays draw on the personal archive of vintage dresses collected by fashion designer Andrew Fionda (of the label Pearce II Fionda). Andrew’s collection is complimented by garments submitted by over 20 of the country’s leading designers and dresses from women with an interesting story to tell.

A History of the Little Black Dress

In 1926 Coco Chanel showcased a simple black jersey dress in American Vogue, which she described as ‘the new uniform of modern women’. Vogue nicknamed the dress the ‘Chanel Ford’ predicting it would be as popular and accessible as Henry Ford’s Model T Car. From this point on, the concept of the Little Black Dress – versatile, sophisticated and progressive, was planted firmly in the public imagination.

The popularity of the Little Black Dress remained more or less constant throughout the twentieth century. The 1950s and 1960s were its heyday, owing in part to the post-war boom in cocktail parties, at which Vogue told its readers ‘Little Black Dresses are in their element’. The 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s transformed the LBD into a style icon, so that by 1965 Vogue awarded it the accolade of ‘contemporary classic – authentic and ageless.’

Improvements in manufacturing standards for ready-to-wear clothes, and the introduction of new synthetic fibres, broadened the availability and affordability of Little Black Dresses. The dresses on display at The Fashion and Textile Museum are manufactured by ready-to-wear fashion labels or unnamed dressmakers. They represent what ‘ordinary’ women wore over the course of the twentieth century.

Designers’ Little Black Dress

The challenge for contemporary designers is to update the Little Black Dress, season after season. The fantastical creations of conceptual designers, notably Gareth Pugh, have progressed the genre beyond the stereotype of neat, sophisticated cocktail wear. In the twenty first century, the LBD can be as progressive and revolutionary as Chanel’s Ford dress was in the twentieth century. 

The Fashion and Textile Museum invited over twenty of Britain’s leading designers to show us their idea of the perfect Little Black Dress.

Constrained by colour, designers experiment with texture, form, drape and silhouette. As Catherine Walker says, ‘the Little Black dress is the perfect canvas for pure line and form’. From English Eccentric’s laser cut Snowflake Dress to the exaggerated shapes of Mario Schwab’s Stone Age Dress, the variety of black dresses on display highlights the unique creativity of our contemporary British fashion designers and classic design houses.

 The Little Black Dress continues to be an important part of the contemporary wardrobe; it is constantly being adapted and re-imagined by both designers and consumers. The LBD fits in the new movement towards Minimalism, a versatile garment that captures the ‘less-is-more’ ethos.

Dennis Nothdruft, Head of Exhibitions on the LBD in 2020

My Little Black Dress

The Little Black Dress has the power to make all women feel special. We asked women in London to tell us the stories that make their personal Little Black Dresses exceptional. We heard tales of seduction, revenge and unforgettable occasions. On display are some of these dresses together with garments worn by women famed for their style in wearing LBDs.

We do hope you’ve enjoyed exploring the Fashion and Textile Museum online. If so, please consider making a donation, to help us continue our work during this difficult time.

Every donation will support us in showcasing contemporary fashion and textile design during our closure, and will assist us in welcoming you back to the Museum, as soon as we are able.

26/03/2020

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