Of History, Coco and the Little Black Dress
The iconic poster of Audrey Hepburn, clad in a snug Little Black Dress, holding a cigarette lighter and coolly gazing out of the frame from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is probably one of the most picturesque images produced by Hollywood. But apart from pushing its protagonist to dizzying new heights of popularity, this poster was also a landmark one because it introduced Coco Chanel’s Little Black Dress to the masses. And it’s been an eternal legacy ever since.
The inspiration to write this post has arisen in response to a ‘dare’ given to freshly enrolled first year female students at my university during one of their early courses, urging them to resist the ‘temptation’ of wearing the Little Black Dress by the end of their first year, among other sinful temptations. In the spirit of the thought provoking and eye opening discussions I fondly remember from my own first year, I would like to present a differing opinion; one endorsing the merits of falling for that temptation, and donning that Little Black Dress with pride.
I shan’t dwell much upon the fact that female students, or for that matter women anywhere, should be able to wear whatever they want, be ‘tempted’ by whatever dresses they want, and should not be harassed or judged for the same. It’s a simple point that’s been made often enough, and I daresay will continue to be made, as it should.
I shall, however, dwell most seriously on the positive need for us to embrace the little black dress, not purely for its appeal to the eye, but for all that it represents. The Little Black Dress or the ‘LBD’, as it is fondly called today, was an expression of more than just the designing genius of one Coco Chanel.
For beginners, it was black. Today this constitutes a bland observation. But back in the early 1900s and well into the 1940s, black was strictly relegated to widows and servants. For up to four years after her husband’s demise, a widow was strictly confined to all-concealing, unalluring black garbs. And because it was positively scandalous to be seen in black unless you were a lowly servant, widows were further confined to their rooms or houses and isolated from any public life or company. As legend goes, when Coco Chanel lost her paramour in a tragic car accident, she felt ‘black’ in grief. But she was not a widow, and she definitely didn’t intend to stay confined anywhere for four years – her business was booming, and she had already begun her own revolution for women’s liberation through her designs (which included introducing pants for women and doing away with oppressive corsets during the First World War). And so, she decided it was time the world around her embraced the colour black.
Coco wasn’t an aristocrat or even a genteel. She was a seamstress who had rubbed shoulders with the black-clad servants since she was born. And she had smashed the glass ceiling to dress the crème de la crème of Parisian society, who vied for her appointment despite her humble origins. So when she brought out her Little Black Dress, made immensely popular when it was endorsed by Audrey Hepburn, it added a very decisive nail in the coffin of ostracising the colour black, and those who had been ostracised with it.
Secondly, the little black dress was, well, little. This naturally raised quite a furore in a society where the flash of an ankle was generally the subject of the week’s gossip or the plot of heartrending romantic literature. But over the decades, it became a staple in most women’s wardrobes, worn at parties, to formal events or even to work. Today we bemoan the attitude of those who claim that the length of our skirts determine our character, who believe that our appearance if ‘tempting’ enough erases the requirement of consent and that ultimately, women and the treatment they deserve is based on what they decide to wear.
But the Little Black Dress, with its history and its function, stands tall against such attitudes. It was created by a woman who changed the rules of clothing for women, who freed them from social and historic confines and a woman who broke down barriers of classes with her creations. The Little Black Dress is worn by women all over the world today, who stride into workplaces, enjoy themselves at parties and don’t believe that the length of their skirt determines anything about their personality or sexual availability.
So I say that we all fall for the ‘temptation’ of an LBD, if we find it alluring enough. Coco Chanel’s creation is obviously more than just another fashion output to enhance physical allure. It is the result of her personal rebellion in sync with a historic purpose, revolutionary in its function and empowering in its effect. And I urge those first years to lose that ‘dare’ and be tempted by the LBD. Rest assured, the truth of your substance is definitely not resident in the length, colour and design of the dress you wear. So the next time you wear a fabulous Little Black Dress, or any dress for that matter, and are made to feel badly about it, just glare back and stride on. Because that’s what Coco would have done.