The little black dress

Little black dress by Coco Chanel

Two events had a seminal impact on changing the cultural status of black at the start of the 20th century: the Royal Ascot race of 1910, also called “Black Ascot”, because all visitors were dressed in full mourning black due to the recent death of Edward VII, and because of World War I, the Great War. The first event marked the total alignement of couture, black and high fashion, the latter contributed in various ways to relaxing the near exclusive link between black, death and traditional mourning practices.

Around 1919, attitudes towards black had changed radically. Fashion reporting of the time strongly positions black as a fashionable colour. The link between black, elegance and distinction is just as clear. Gabrielle Chanel’s mythical little black dress from 1926 probably was not the first black couture dress. The widespread enthusiasm for simple black dresses in downmarket publications at the start of the 1920s, dispels the myth that only after Chanel launched her little black dress was it possible for women to copy it and turn it into a universal uniform. In fact, evidence hints very clearly that black was more than likely a staple of working and lower middle class wardrobes, both as work and fashionable wear, before it was adopted by the elite. Yet, it was Chanel’s ‘Ford T dress’ from 1926 that became the prototype of the little black dress. Chanel was a master of self-promotion, and through selling her own look and persona, she became her own product: she was the bobbed haired, cloche hat-wearing woman in the little black dress. She made herself the prototype of the stylish, liberated new woman. Her star appeal made her an aspirational model for young women who copied her look. So this was a Chanel dress, before it was a little black dress.

Dirk Van Saene Autumn/Winter 2008/2009

Dirk Van Saene Autumn/Winter 2008/2009, MoMu Collection. Photo by Hugo Maertens

The exhibition Black. Masters of Black in Fashion & Costume also features a selection of dresses by Dirk Van Saene’s A/W 2008-09 ‘Le Dernier Cri: la grande robe noire’ collection. Van Saene’s collection is a series of dresses in black felted wool, so that the focus is entirely on tailoring and embellishment. The collection is inspired by the mythical little black dress. each dress boasts characteristic haute couture elements, such as bows and flower corsages, now in extremely enlarged form, giving the designs a humorous undertone.