The Underclass Origins of the Little Black Dress

The upper classes once imposed the fashion staple on their servants—then they stole it back from them. An Object Lesson.

Little black dresses on display on mannequins
Stephanie Keith / Reuters

Last week, Sotheby’s auctioned off 140 little black dresses. The event, “Les Petites Robes Noires, 1921–2010,” featured vintage dresses collected by the fashion antiquarian Didier Ludot. A dazzling mix of silk faille, velvet, jersey, and tulle—all in black—cut simple silhouettes. The collection included iconic pieces from Chanel, Givenchy, and Hermès. The more expensive lots fetched over 20,000 euros.

To introduce the collection, Ludot wrote, “Today I pay tribute to the astonishing story of the little black dress and to the designers who wrote its story, a dizzying tale ... from the Roaring Twenties to the new millennium.” But the most astonishing part of the little black dress’s story might be its prologue, the backstory left out of the auction catalogue, the glossy coffee-table books, and the fashion magazines. The most important acolytes of the little black dress were not designers nor aristocrats, but masses of working-class women.

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In October 1926, Vogue featured a sketch of a long-sleeved, calf-length, black sheath dress by a plucky young designer named Coco Chanel. Dubbed “Chanel’s Ford,” the dress was promoted as equivalent in egalitarianism to the Model T.

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 seems like an astute prediction, in hindsight. But in 1926, the proclamation was tone-deaf at best, as the little black dress was already the actual uniform of many working-class women. The little black dress (or LBD, as it is commonly abbreviated) was a uniform designed to keep certain women in their place. Only later was it co-opted as haute couture for women of taste.

When the lower classes adopt the fashions of the elite, the elites often respond by changing course abruptly—a neckline or a hemline rises or falls dramatically, perhaps, or a voluminous silhouette narrows. But sometimes, rather than quickly changing styles, the upper classes simply wear the clothes the poor have discarded.

For example, as towns populated in the 14th century, a merchant class arose within them. This middle class had some discretionary income, and they spent it on the most conspicuous consumer good: clothing. Finally, they could afford jewel-studded velvets, gold and silver trimmings, brightly colored coats, and sumptuous furs. As the fashion historian Anne Hollander has explained, when the aristocracy couldn’t outlaw or outspend these medieval nouveau riche, they started wearing baggy and threadbare clothing. This new fashion—looking like one had thrown on any old thing—served as a not-so-subtle reminder to the upstarts that, while money could buy clothes, it couldn’t buy class.

Blue jeans offer a more recent example. Jeans began as cheap and durable work pants for miners and farmers. They were the de facto uniform of the rural working class. But once working-class men had access to ready-to-wear trousers, their jeans started showing up on postwar suburban youths, and then in trendy boutiques. Recently, Nordstrom even sold a $425 pair of jeans with fake mud stains—the ultimate blue-collar costume. Once more, the wealthy turn the tables by appropriating the clothing of the poor.

The LBD also finds its origins among the poor. Before the 19th century, domestic servants wore whatever they could—homemade dresses, often, but also their employers’ hand-me-downs. But in the 1860s, the British upper classes required their maids to wear a common uniform: a white mobcap, an apron, and a simple black dress. Soon after, wealthy American and French families followed suit.

Relationships between upper-class women and their servants had changed, becoming “less intimate and more authoritarian,” as the sociologist Diana Crane puts it. At this time, servants ceased to be “the help,” a somewhat collegial characterization, and became known as “domestics.” And domestics wearing upper-class castoffs, especially young and pretty ones, led to embarrassing mix-ups. A caller mistaking the maid for the mistress of the house raised uncomfortable questions about recently erected class barriers.

Cassell’s Household Guide, which billed itself as an encyclopedia of domestic and social economy, summed up the problem like this, circa 1880: “As a general rule, ladies do not like to see their maids dressed in the clothes they themselves have worn—the difference in the social scale of mistress and maid renders this unpleasing.”

But Cassell’s made one exception: “a black or a dark-colored silk.” Previously, a simple black dress meant a wealthy woman was “dressing down.” But by the 19th century, the black dress had become a staple of the lower and middle classes. It was the perfect hand-me-down for the help.

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There was a time when black signified wealth. It was favored by 15th-century Spanish aristocrats and wealthy Dutch merchants. Later, Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 The Book of the Courtier advised others to follow their lead, to appear above the petty fads of commoners. Black clothing conveyed plainness and piety, for one thing. But it was also incredibly expensive to produce, requiring vast quantities of imported “oak apples”—a bulbous growth left behind on oak leaves from insect egg sacs. By the early 19th century, a newer dye made from logwood and ferrous sulfate made the color cheap to produce. In 1863, an even cheaper synthetic aniline black dye was developed.

By the 1880s, most awkward maid-or-mistress mix-ups had been eliminated thanks to the trusty black dress. But another sort of working-class woman now had the opportunity to dress above her station. Rapid industrialization gave consumers more disposable income, and they wanted places to spend it. More shops opened in urban centers, and cheap labor was needed to staff them. Unmarried young women began pouring into the cities to work as “shopgirls” in dry-good establishments, dress stores, hat and glove shops, and department stores.

The shopgirl enjoyed more freedom and less supervision than domestic servants did. Often, for the first time in her life, she also enjoyed some disposable income of her own. The sewing machine, invented in 1846 and mass-produced in the 1870s, made it easier than ever to imitate these fashions. Mated to the precut paper pattern, devised by the upscale American designer Ellen Curtis Demorest, women could duplicate the latest fashions from Paris with relative ease. And advances in efficiency at textile factories made a wider variety of fabrics and trims available with which to do so.

The new cheap aniline dyes that made the domestic’s black uniform possible also made brightly colored dresses—the vivid scarlets, blues, and greens that were once only for the upper classes—affordable, too. With a few dollars and a few nights’ work, an enterprising shopgirl could create a passable imitation of a dress from the society pages. Or instead, she could shop the sale rack at her place of employment—one of the large, new department stores—and purchase a ready-to-wear dress. She could then alter and trim the dress with lace, sequins, or buttons to make it appear custom-made.

So attired, she might successfully blend in with a store’s clientele—or even outshine them. This wasn’t a desirable state of affairs. Writing in the June 4, 1910, edition of the International Gazette, a Methodist minister urged that “the craze of the shopgirl ... as fashionably attired as the rich woman she waits on had become a menace.” Even earlier, in response to customer complaints, employers had brainstormed ways to neutralize the threat. In 1890, The Sun declared there was a “revolution in dress” underway, “not by the fashionable folk, but by New York’s army of shopgirls.”

In response, many employers began requiring their female employees to dress like domestic servants, in simple black dresses. An 1892 San Francisco Call headline summarized the reaction among the labor pool: “The Shopgirls Hate It.” Sometimes they even went on strike in response. But threatened with termination, most shopgirls buckled, and by the 1890s the little black dress was the required uniform in New York, London, and Paris.

In the summer of 1894, wearing a black dress became a condition of employment for Jersey City telephone operators, too. The “‘hello’ girls,” as they were called, also protested. Newspapers presented their case sympathetically; in 1892, for example, the Reading Times pointed out that the women were opposed not to the dress itself, but “to the idea of showing by their dress that they are working girls.”

For these reasons, the little black dress became a marker of class. When young working-class women complained that being forced into uniform was “inconsistent with our ideals of freedom and independence,” as the The San Francisco Call reported in 1892, they weren’t just complaining about self-expression. Embedded in their ideals was the promise of social mobility.

These women were the fin de siècle equivalent of medieval merchants. They mixed with the upper classes, whether in drawing rooms or on retail shop floors, and they saw what the wealthy wore up close. Thanks to the sewing machine, the paper pattern, and affordable fabrics, the working classes could finally, feasibly, dress like high society—even if they were now only permitted to do so after work hours.

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Society matrons exacted their revenge by dressing like shopgirls and maids, reappropriating their little black dresses for the upper crust.

Lillie Langtry, a famous British beauty who would go on to become a successful actress, conquered London society in 1886 “dressed in a simple little black frock,” as the Emporia Daily News described it. By the early 1900s, socialites who wanted to appear especially youthful and edgy donned little black dresses. The LBD appeared in fashion magazines and society pages decades before Chanel’s dress appeared in Vogue. It was such an established trend by 1915 that even the wife of the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury appeared in public looking “like a college girl, in her short little black dress.”

While Coco Chanel didn’t invent the little black dress, she was astute enough to pick up on the underlying trend that made it popular—la pauvreté de luxe, she called it, or “luxurious poverty.” It was a look reserved exclusively for those who could “afford” to look poor by pretending that they simply couldn’t be bothered with fashion. But while a rich woman might now better blend into the crowd, on closer inspection, there would be some small detail in her seemingly anonymous garment—a certain cut or fabric or label—that acted as a secret handshake for those in the know.

Today, the fashion industry sometimes celebrates the little black dress as an equal-opportunity fashion—versatile, classic, and chic. But this neutral garment was never ideologically neutral—nor was it the democratic creation of a visionary designer. The little black dress marked and mediated social boundaries, a collaboration between cutting-edge technology and age-old class politics.

Today, in addition to little black-dress auctions, there are LBD-themed dinner parties and wine tastings, galas and charity balls. A little black dress has become a shorthand for instant glamour, promising to disguise both figure flaws and mundane lives. This blue-collar costume has successfully crossed over. Women wear little black dresses to feel more like Audrey Hepburn or Princess Diana or even a model in a Robert Palmer music video. But when they do, those women also conjure other predecessors: the women who wore them while they balanced trays, stocked shelves, folded shirts, worked the switchboards, and wrung out the laundry.