Thursday, April 22, 2010

In the film ´The Devil Wears Prada´, the devil herself, editor of American Vogue, Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep, overhears Andy (Anne Hathaway)´s teeth-gritting complaint that the exploding rail of designer samples in front of her are ´just a bunch of clothes.´ She responds with a blow by blow account of the historical and cultural relevence of fashion since the beginning of time, referencing everything from cornflour blue to cheesecloth.

It´s a pertinent tribute to fashion, not least because it quickly diffuses the commonly made assumption that fashion holds neither substance nor relevence to the world around it, one that people should never be shy of challenging. And there are few better ways of understanding this than through everyone´s favourite christmas party piece: The Little Black Dress.

Often described as ´timeless´, ´classic´, and´suitable for every occasion´ there are various reasons why the LBD features in many womens´ wardrobes. The most obvious being that black is a most flattering and versatile colour. Yet the timelessness of the LBD as a garment actually owes more to those designers who have chosen to re-invent it throughout the last century than is often appreciated, and here´s why.
In 1926, Vogue published an image of a short, simple black dress designed by the late Coco Chanel. It is hard to imagine today but prior to the 1920s, black was de rigeur for funerals, but, alas, very little else. So in presenting a black dress that would be worn also on uplifting occassions, what Coco Chanel was doing, we might today call cutting edge.

Sleeveless and backless, pin-tucked and draped, made of crepe-de-chine and loosely based on the simple lines of a chemise, the beauty of the LBD lay in its simplicity – it was a blank  canvas on which women were free to stamp their own identiy, whether with accessories, hair style or make-up. Vogue likened it to the Model T Ford, seeing it as a garment that was easily accesible to women of all ages and shapes. Indeed the magazine noted that it would be ´a sort of uniform for all women of taste´.

Whilst Coco Chanel set the pace with her LBD, Hubert de Givenchy championed it in his vision for Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffanys. It may have been over 30 years later, but Audrey Hepburn, elegant in the black dress accessorized with pearls and a cigarette holder, was completely in Chanel´s image.

But Givenchy´s LBD was also timely, pre-empting a change in the nature of fashion. Before Breakfast at Tiffany´s, the fashion industry was limited to what is known as couture. Couture was and still is the supply of hand-made, made to measure garments, to the social and aristocratic elites who could afford it in the early 1950s. There was no such thing as ´ready-to wear´pieces that could be bought off the shelf. Cocktail dresses and glamourous formalwear would have only been worn by the wealthiest members of society. However Hepburn, with her curious mix of stylish sophistication and down to earth charm, set the stage for a new way of dressing that crossed the boundaries of social class in a way that was unprecedented. Givenchy´s vision of the LBD triumphed because it accurately judged the mood of its time.

In the years since the LBD has changed and evolved, often revealing a very telling snapshot of the era within which it was created. Azzadine Alaia´s designs during the 1980s epitomized the decade's fixation with curve-enhancing clothes that hugged the human form. Nicknamed by the media´The king of cling´, Alaia´s take on the LBD dress was notably tight and stretchy, heavy on sex appeal and light on length. Broadly speaking, the 80s was about power dressing, and in Alaia´s vision for the LBD was a very bold statement about a woman´s sexuality.

In 1985 the late Diana, Princess of Wales selected a LBD designed by Cristiana Stambolian (pictured) to wear to the Serpentine gallery, on the night that Prince Charles´confession of adultory was to become public. Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, it was Diana and her dress that made the newspapers the following morning. The 80s LBD illustrated power dressing at its most potent. The dress was later named 'The Revenge'. 

And what of the noughties? Whilst in recent years the dress as formal wear and casual wear has seen a revival, with women opting for the ease and sophistication of a one piece look, the fashion forecast for this winter 08/09 heralded a celebration of all things black, suggesting it likely that we will see many more re-incarnations of the LBD this winter and beyond. Additionally an emphasis on lace by designers such as Balmain and Prada, and a nod towards the classic cocktail silhouette by the likes of Stella McCartney, confirm that Chanel´s 1920s vision is as relevent today as it always was.

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