Introduced in the late 1920s and first popular in the 1930s, the little black dress—a slim-fitting dress of varying length worn for dinners, cocktail parties, and evenings out—was one of the most popular fashions of the twentieth century. Along with blue jeans and the T-shirt, it is one of the most influential and important garments of the twentieth century.
The little black dress made its debut in May 1926, with a pen and ink drawing in Vogue magazine by designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883–1971). The magazine editors called the dress "Chanel's 'Ford,'" comparing the dress to the simply designed, economically priced black Ford Model T automobile.
The dress caused an instant uproar in the fashion world. Choosing black as a fashionable color was itself startling. Before Chanel, black clothing was associated with either the clergy or servants, or with mourning. But the simplicity and economy of the dress appealed to women of the 1930s Great Depression era, a time of severe economic turmoil after the stock market crash of 1929. With this simple item in their wardrobes, accessorized only with a string of pearls or a pair of high-heels, middle-class women and high-society ladies could be equals. As Chanel said, "Thanks to me they [non-wealthy] can walk around like millionaires."
One of the first celebrities to popularize the little black dress was the cartoon character Betty Boop, the squeaky-voiced, well-proportioned creation of animator Max Fleischer (1883-1972). Wallis Simpson (1896–1986), the American who married the former king of England in 1937, also wore the dress and reportedly said, "When the little black dress is right, there is nothing else to wear in its place," as quoted by Valerie Mendes.
The woman who, according to expert Amy Holman Edelman, "made the little black dress an art form," was actress Audrey Hepburn (1929–1993). She wore a little black dress designed by Hubert de Givenchy (1927–) in the role of free-spirited Holly Golightly in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's.
By the end of the twentieth century almost every major designer from Ralph Lauren (1939–) to Donna Karan (1948–) had included a little black dress in their clothing lines. Amy Holman Edelman, who devoted an entire book, The Little Black Dress, to Chanel's creation, has called the dress "emblematic of a woman's freedom of choice, her equal participating in the world and her declaration that, this time, she is dressing for herself."
Costantino, Maria. Fashions of a Decade: The 1930s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
Edelman, Amy Holman. The Little Black Dress. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Haedrich, Marcel. Coco Chanel: Her Life, Her Secrets. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1971.
Mendes, Valerie D. Dressed in Black. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.