The Little Black Dress: A Concept

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Twentieth-century semiotician Roland Barthes believed that fashion is a form of non-verbal communication that is totally subjective. Barthes Vestimentary Code suggests that meaning is communicated through the interpretation of signs. The sign is a combination of the signifier (the tangible garment) and the signified (the mental representation). When clothing is translated into this rhetorical code, fashion becomes more than just clothing, but rather a reflection of society. When it comes to semiotics, the little black dress is a garment with an extensive system of signs spanning centuries of changing perceptions (Barthes, R. 1967).

The Little Black Dress is a fashion staple and one which is closely associated with Coco Chanel. Here, you see her in the 1926 little black dress. At the time, Vogue compared this dress to the Ford Model-T - the first car to be industrially manufactured. To reduce costs, the car was painted only in black, and so blacks association with the industrial revolution and modernism was born. In fashion, the 20s are often referred to as the Androgynous era because of the way that couture shifted towards cleaner lines and away from the emphasis on women's breast and butts. The signifiers of Chanel's little black dress are a long, straight cut with a flat chest and straight waist. The signified, therefore, is of an androgynous, boylike figure. The signifier black was used by Chanel as an unambiguous indication of sexual impropriety, modernity and authority, mimicking that of men, clearly demonstrating that women were prepared to enter the workforce. In this way, she shifted the signified of black from a purely male, authoritarian, and mournful colour to a mature, distinguishing, gender-neutral and authoritative colour (Marcangeli, S. 2015). In this way, the LBD became not only a symbol of feminism but a weapon for liberated womanhood. In recent history, I believe that this was no better epitomised than when Princess Diana wore her iconic black "revenge dress" following Prince Charles' adultery scandal.

Chanel claims to have invented the LBD, that's not true, she simply helped popularise it because it was greatly associated with the modern woman of the 20s and who better epitomised that than Ms Chanel?

It's often been said also that Chanel is the one who took the black dress from being a gesture of mourning to being considered fashion. That too was na├»ve. Black clothing in general has undeniably been associated with mourning for a long time. Here, we see a mid-19th-century painting of a governess who is sitting alone, wearing black, presumably in mourning. Notice how the other girls are in light, bright colours connoting carefree girlhood whilst she is in black. 

Black also had many extensive associations in the West with abstinence; members of the clergy, for example, will be wearing black as a signified of their submission to God and authority (Pastereau, M). Black became known as the colour of respectability.

In 1957, Vogue said, black is 'worldly, elegant, plainly alluring, indispensable'. This notion went back a long way. In the Middle Ages, black was not only seen as a colour for elite mourning but also as a very expensive, prestigious, elegant colour. Many aristocrats would wear black to indicate a sense of prestige - a dandiacal elegance which made them stand out amongst the peacock-coloured ensembles characteristic of the Middle Ages.

Black also very much had this sense of being an elegant colour in the 19th century. We think of the 19th century as all people in mourning black and that Chanel was the first to make elegant, fashionable black. Nothing could be further from the truth, black was already a colour which was seen as being extremely elegant. As

La Mode Paris put it in 1885, "Of course black, which can look very economical, can also be on the contrary, very expensive. And yet, the most distinguished dress, the most becoming dress that can be worn by any woman on any occasion is certainly a black dress".

But Black also, and for a long way back, was also associated with sex and power. So, in addition to the idea of death and mourning, it had the suggestion of the Devil (aka, The Prince of Darkness) and hell as the world was presumed to have started from nothing, just darkness (Pastereau, M). In one of Edith Wharton's novels, there is a woman who 'goes to bed' with a man and someone says of her, "What can you expect of someone who was allowed to wear black at her coming-out party?" Black had this connotation of sexiness and eroticism. We see it in the portrait of Madame X, a painting that caused outrage at the time of its reveal, and you see it as well in novels like Anna Karenina where the black velvet that she wears is contrasted with the ivory of her skin. Black's association with power, again goes right back to the Middle Ages to judges and executioners; it's been linked with crime and deviance. In Reservoir Dogs, there's a scene where Mr Pink asks why they can't pick out their own colours, and Joe remarks, “I tried that once, it don't work. You get four guys fighting over who's going to be Mr Black.” Black is associated with the charisma of deviance as well as with the idea of sexualised women. In politics, you have the black of fascism and the black of anarchy.

Furthermore, as Valerie Mendez, the fashion historian, points out, black was fashionable long before the 1920s. In particular, she writes that the little black dress was born in the early 1900s, especially after the death of Edward the 7th in 1909. Then, during World War I, black became ubiquitous for mourning but also as a fashion colour. Black was a symbol of the nations shared grief caused by the war, but it was also a more practical colour as women were joining the war effort through taking over industrial job roles.

Chanel emphasised the quote, 'Scheherazade is easy, the little black dress is difficult'. This was in retaliation to the brilliant colours which were popular in the early 19 teens - reds, greens, and oranges. She said they made her feel nauseous and she went over to the other extreme by only using white, cream, black, and dark navy blue.

Black also has long antecedents as a bohemian, artistic colour. You can find it associated with beatniks, or with black leather jackets. But then you had also the chic cocktail dresses, the high fashion, elegant blacks. Balenciaga, for example, was described as creating dresses in Spanish black which is described as like a deep night without stars. Or Audrey Hepburn - of course - famously wore a plethora of little black dresses.

Christian Dior said of black, you can wear black at any age under virtually any circumstances. He also pointed out, as have many other designers, the black dress is appealing for designers because once you take away the colour you can focus on the silhouette, the texture, and other aspects of the dress, just as you would with line drawing for an artist instead of colour.

In the 1980s, the Japanese fashion revolution made black the dominant avant-garde colour in fashion. Yohji Yamamoto said the Samurai spirit is black. The Samurai must be able to throw his body into nothingness, the colour and image of which is black. Rei Kawakubo put it more simply when she said there are seven shades of black. And, of course, again, as it always sounded cryptic, a black velvet dress is completely different from a black satin dress or a black linen dress, etc.

One of the reasons why black is such a powerful colour is because there are so many layers of meaning. It's like a palimpsest, everything from elegance, evil, desirability, sexiness, power. And for all these layers of meaning, it means that a designer can create a wide variety of clothes, all of which end up having some of the modernity and allure of the little black dress. The little black dress can be whatever the wearer wants, or needs, it to be. In a sense, the little black dress is not a style per se but rather a concept. They’re entirely versatile. There are many ways to design it. It's modern, it changes but it's always the same and it's always a kind of chic armour.