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.
* * *
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.