The Mysterious Little Black Dress {part 01}

In one of the delicately calibrated scenes in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a society matron offers this biting analysis of Ellen Olenska, who has shocked 1870s New York society by her decision to divorce her husband: “What can you expect of a girl who was allowed to wear black satin at her coming-out ball?”

What, indeed? As Mrs. Archer’s remark suggests, the woman in lack is always suspect. Black implies you have something to hide, such as a colorful past. It’s a provocative color, one few people are indifferent to. Age-old associations link it with death, evil, and destruction. Wearing black implies transgression. Anna Karenina wore black to the ball at which Vronsky became smitten with her; her niece, Kitty, herself in love with Vronsky, wore pale pink – and failed utterly to get his attention.  When a woman puts on a black dress, the world assumes she’s sophisticated, sexual, and knowing. By eschewing the bright plumage of the hunted for the discreet attire of the hunter the woman in black is taking on the role of the aggressor. In pastels, she’s a target, passive. In black, she’s charting her own course.

Keira Knightly at Anna Karenina

75 years after Wharton’s fictional black gown horrified New Yorkers, Cornell Woolrich, the great pulp novelist of the 1940s, used black to turn a traditional symbol of womanhood, the bride in her white gown, into an apocalyptic vision. In The Bride Wore Black, Woolrich’s bride, widowed on her wedding day by a car full of drunks as she and husband descended the steps of the church, is an avenging fury. She tracks down every man responsible for her husband’s death, bewitches him, and kills him. In the film version Jeanne Moreau plays the bride, stalking the streets in a little black dress by Chanel, the designer who did more than any other to put women in this emphatic color. 

In Ellen Olenska’s time, no man wanted to marry a woman bold enough to choose black as her signature color (Ellen meets her husband not at her debut but in far less puritanical Europe, and Wharton insinuates that he is so singularly debauched that he might very well have been drawn to a girl in black) and the point of the coming-out ball was to launch debutantes into the marriage markets. Yet Ellen fascinates every other character in the novel. No one remembers the white dresses of the other girls, while Ellen’s raven toilette remains etched in memory. That’s not surprising – black is most effective when it is surrounded by less passionate shades. Ellen’s black dress symbolizes her individuality, her determination to live her life on her own terms.

a Victorian mourning dress
It’s an appealing concept, and one that has drawn generations of women to the little black dress. Indeed, the term has entered our cultural lexicon. Say it and everyone knows what you’re referring to: a dress that’s simple enough to appear effortless, yet elegant enough to mark the wearer as a woman of taste.

Lady Diana Spencer wearing black gown

This delicious ambiguity is what makes the LBD so attractive. By turns seductive or demure, bold or self-effacing, chic or gamine, it’s one of the big guns in any sartorial armory. Women as diverse as Lady Diana Spencer and Elizabeth Hurley have used LBDs to transform their public images, Diana with low-cut ball gown she wore for her first public appearance with Prince Charles, an eye-popper that prompted headlines such as SEE NIPPLES AND DI; and Hurley with the infamous Versace safety-pin dress that catapulted her in the eyes of the world from nice English girl to smoldering sexpot. 

Elizabeth Hurley in wearing black Versace, with Hugh Grant

Of course not all black is quite so sexually charged. Black also suggests a uniform chicness that transcends mere fashion. The LBD is built on refusal. It doesn't give the wearer many props, but rather lets her own self shine. It’s a lot to ask from a garment, as Coco Chanel acknowledged. “Scheherezade is easy,” she said. “A little black dress is hard.”

Mixed with white, as in the LBD by Yves Saint Laurent that Catherine Deneuve wears in the final scene of Belle de jour, black’s slinkiness is tempered, its purity emphasized Deneuve’s character, bored housewife who moonlight as a prostitute, is told that she looks like a “precocious schoolgirl” in the dress.

Black’s trans-formative powers are astounding. Fashion magazines once trumpeted it as an excellent choice for the plump, since it is reputed to have a slimming effect. But what about black’s more theatrical qualities? It can render the old sinister, the young heartbreakingly innocent, and the quiet forbidding. It’s strong stuff, so potent that it can’t always be faced on an empty stomach – as late as 1964, Genevieve Antoine-Dariaux warned, in her fashion etiquette book, Elegance, “The truly chic woman never wears black before noon.”

Black is usually discouraged on girls, on the grounds that it’s too worldly. Consequently, a first black dress is a milestone. My first important black dress was the one I wore to 2012 Philippine Fashion Week. I thought I looked divine – sophisticated, mysterious, and utterly unlike anyone else I was likely to encounter that evening.

Mothers and black dresses are often at odds. In Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar, the heroine, like Ellen Olenska, instinctively grasps the power of black. She persuades her mother to let her wear a slinky black to a dance, when all the other girls are insipid in pastels. Thus attired, she catches the eye of a millionaire, leading her to deduce that her mother doesn’t know very much about clothes.

Black is a color laden with symbolism – terms such as black heart, black magic, and blackmail indicate its dark connotations. Black is the color of sin and the supernatural. But it’s also the color of asceticism, worn by the pious and the learned: Priests, nuns, scholars, hermits and lawyers have all the traditionally been shadowed in its sooty depths. Black is ideal for creating a dramatic air – Hamlet is usually depicted in black, as are the femmes fatales of both Gothic romances and film noir. Where would Rita Hayworth’s Gilda have been without her black, or, for that matter, Mrs. Danvers, the creepy housekeeper in Rebecca? Both knew how to work a black dress to their advantage.

In her book Seeing Through Clothes the fashion historian Anne Hollander explains it might well have been this sense of drama that first launched black as a shade worn by the fashionable rather than the religious or grief-stricken. Fashionable black, she writes, did not appear until the 14th-century, after European clothing had evolved beyond simple robes for both sexes – the implication that being that only a highly sophisticated society has a need for fashionable black. In sartorial terms at least, “the Dark Ages” was a misnomer.

As the making of clothes evolved from a craft to an art, Hollander explains, “The symbolism of black could be used with creative perversity for emotional effect.” In other words, anyone who dressed in clothing that was both black and fashionable was very consciously exploiting the color’s contradictory traits. One of the first to mine this potential was Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, in the middle of the 15th-century. Philip used sumptuous but all-black costumes to set himself apart from his colorfully dressed courtiers, an affectation that probably made him appear both saintly and satanic. In a painting of him and his courtiers, Philip looks like a floppish existentialist at a garden party. By playing a stylish version of good cop/bad cop, he no doubts kept his entourage on their toes. 

Hollander suggests that it is no accident that the rise of portrait painting in Europe coincided with the emergence of black as a fashionable shade. In its starkness, black isolates the wearer’s uniqueness. Used in a portrait, it emphasizes the individual rather than rank or family connection, thereby underscoring the humanistic views of the Renaissance. 

The vogue for black spread from France to Spain, where it became a favorite of the pious aristocracy. Black was also a favorite of the upwardly mobile Dutch bourgeoisie, who considered it an ideal conduit for the discreet display of wealth, as black dyes were far more expensive than any other kind.

By the 16th-century, wearing black was no longer a way of standing out, but a way of blending in. Then, in the 17th century the aristocracy, followed by the middle classes, turned to paler shades, and black became associated with dowdiness and respectability. By the 19th century, black has reverted to its former status as a color worn almost exclusively for mourning. But as it faded out of mainstream fashion, black’s renegade past reemerged. It was adopted by the Romantics, who reveled in its dramatic mien. Black attire reinforced the image of Romantics had of themselves as lone, sensitive souls: In portraits of the era, wan-looking, black-clad young mean lean pensively on one arm, looking as though they might expire from the weight of their angst. The dandies of the Romantic era were the first to wear black evening clothes, a habit that eventually became de riguer for men of all dispositions. The demonic origins of this convention can still be seen in two figures that are, even now, represented in evening clothes: magicians and vampires. 

While radical young men chose black as their emblem, for most of the 19th-century women wore it only for mourning. The clothes of fashionable women, in contrast to soberly colored male attire, were very bright, particularly after the invention of aniline dyes in the 1850s. This emphasized the decorative role that middle-and upper class women were relegated to in Victorian times. They stayed indoors, where their gaudy hues wouldn't get soiled. Men, dressed in somber shades that protected them from the soot and dirt of the Industrial Revolution, ventured out into the world. 

... to be concluded
The Mysterious Little Black Dress {part 02}

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