With party season on the horizon (that’s what we’re all hoping here at Studio10, anyway), I’ve been musing on what to wear – and, more specifically, wondering whether that little black dress at the back of my wardrobe is still relevant.
I like to think I’ve made some pretty bold style choices in midlife – so is opting for the safety of a little black dress a step backwards? Is the LBD the sartorial equivalent of a comfort blanket? A sad cliché? Or does it, in fact, turn me into Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s the moment I slip it on (which is what happens in my head)?
The LBD comes with a lot of history – and who doesn’t love a good story? According to the journalist André Leon Talley, the term “little black dress” was first used in 1926 alongside an American Vogue illustration of a straight, long-sleeved design in unlined crèpe de chine accented with four diagonal stripes. And the designer? Coco Chanel, of course.
The dress cut a radically modern figure – and some people were horrified, too, as black had long been associated with mourning. For Chanel, though, black was the definition of simple elegance, which has pretty much remained to this day. There’s a great story about Chanel bumping into her rival, Paul Poiret, in the street, who asked her what she was in mourning for. Her reply? “For you, dear monsieur.”
At the time, Vogue’s editors wrote that Chanel’s little black dress would “become sort of a uniform for all women of taste”. That proclamation was pretty astute – but it was also tone deaf as, at the time, the little black dress was already the actual uniform of lots of working-class women. So the LBD was, in fact, designed to keep maids and shop girls in their place. Only later was it co-opted for women of taste.
Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, championed the LBD for most of her life, saying: “When a little black dress is right, there is nothing else to wear in its place.” Think of Hepburn in that sleeveless Givenchy gown, accessorised with long black gloves, a pearl choker and dark glasses; or that Versace safety-pin dress worn by Elizabeth Hurley to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Then there’s the marvellous Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour wearing Yves Saint Laurent, with white collar and cuffs; or Princess Diana in Christina Stambolian’s knockout “revenge dress” at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Each one of those dresses is iconic (and I use the word advisedly).
Mrs Prada has a fascinating take on it: “To me, designing a little black dress is trying to express in a simple, banal object, a great complexity about women, aesthetics and current times.” She might be right. Back in October, Vogue’s cover star, Zendaya, was photographed by Craig McDean in a series of takes on the style: a custom silk-gazar Valentino mini; a duchesse-satin dress (and matching gloves) by Emilia Wickstead; a crèpe mini from Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello; and a dazzling semi-sheer gown from Paco Rabanne. She looked fabulous in all of them.
But I also wonder if it’s time for us, as women in midlife, to move on? Because, by retreating to the safety of a little black dress, aren’t we just reinforcing all of the gender roles assigned to us? Tight little woman in tight little frock? Why not bust out into a trouser suit and smash those stereotypes – even if it’s only for one night? At the Emmys in September, Kathryn Hahn got that particular memo and her little black option was a strapless Lanvin jumpsuit, while Rita Wilson went for a Tom Ford black-trouser-suit-with-a-twist. Hurrah for them.
Of course, Yves Saint Laurent got there long before them, back in 1966, with Le Smoking, a tuxedo suit for women that made the fashion world sit up and take notice. He took bits and pieces from men’s suits and women’s ready to wear, and combined them to startling effect. If my budget were limitless, Le Smoking is the way I would go.
So when you’re wondering what to wear for that Christmas party, spare a thought for the politics of the little black dress. But whatever you choose to put on, be sure it makes you feel good.
Now, let’s get this party started…