The Little Black Dress: By the Decade

The first little black dress

There’s nothing little about it, really. It’s as iconic and larger-than-life as the person who invented it. Coco Chanel.

According to The Costume Institute, Chanel debuted the little black dress in 1926. Vogue quickly nicknamed it the “Ford of Fashion,” comparing the garment to the Model T car, which was very popular at the time. The drawing pictured on the left of Chanel’s original design appeared in the magazine that same year.

The first little black dress was long-sleeved, fell just below the knees, and was constructed of a wool jersey fabric. Chanel designed it to be a simple and unadorned foundation piece that could be worn with different accessories and dressed up or down according to the occasion.

Prior to World War I, women didn’t really wear black that often because the color was associated with mourning. In the period that followed (and especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s) black captured the collective mood of despair and became more acceptable. The little black dress required minimal fabric, so it was more affordable to produce at the time, making it even more popular.

In the decades that followed, the little black dress only increased in popularity, appearing on fashion runways and magazine covers in various forms: the pinup, the wiggle, the mini, the maxi, and more. Here’s a little sampling.

1940s Dresses: The Pinup

After years of fabric-rationing and factory uniforms, there was a strong desire for a return to more glamorous dressing. Enter Christian Dior.

In the 1940s, Dior came up with the famous “New Look” silhouette, featuring rounded shoulders, nipped waistlines, and full skirts. This design led to the “pinup” and “rockabilly” styles of the late 40s and mid-50s. Black was a dominant color.

“You can wear black at any age,” Dior stated at the time. “You can wear it on almost any occasion. A little black frock is essential to a woman.”

Shop the 1940s look

1950s Dresses: The Wiggle

The 1950s introduced another new look. The “wiggle” or “pencil” dress became popular when worn by movie stars including Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.

The wiggle got its name in reference to the way a woman had to walk when wearing the dress. The straight hemline was more narrow than the hips, requiring her to take shorter strides and keep the legs close together when walking. This caused a swaying of the hips that became known as the “wiggle.”

The little black wiggle dress was certainly not the easiest to walk (or sit) in, but it was glamorous nonetheless.

Shop wiggle dresses

1960s Dresses: The Mini

The 1960s ushered in the rise of the hemline. The sexual revolution happening at the time freed women from strict dress codes and encouraged more expression in both sexuality and fashion.

Little black dresses got even littler thanks to designers like Mary Quant (who is credited with inventing the miniskirt) and André Courrèges (known for his space-age minidresses). Both designers were showing skirts and dresses that hit several inches above the knee.

Dresses in the 1960s were worn with go-go boots, platform shoes, or chic flats. Think Edie Sedgwick hanging out with Andy Warhol at The Factory.

Shop 1960s looks

1970s Dresses: The Midi and Maxi

The sexual revolution continued into the 1970s, but the hemlines retreated. The little black midi-dress replaced the mini-dress thanks to Studio 54 and the decade of disco. Prom and evening dresses went full-length maxi and were made of silk, satin, or polyester material.

Little black dresses from designers such as Halston, Bill Blass, Norma Kamali, Donald Brooks and Stephen Burrows were all popular during the 1970s.

It was also the decade that Diane von Furstenburg introduced the iconic wrap dress.

Shop 1970s Style Dresses

1980s Dresses: The Pouf

Pouf! There it is!

If you went to high school during the mid to late 1980s, you had a pouffy prom dress.

Whether the poof was at the shoulder or the hem, bigger was always better. (It wasn’t called the “Big 80s” for nothing. Something had to balance out all that hair!)

Aside from prom dresses, most dresses in the 80s had oversized shoulder pads and tons of embellishments, including sequins, beading, and chain detail, like this little black Lillie Rubin dress I’m wearing in the photo.

Shop 1980s dresses

1990s Dresses: The Bodycon

The 90s were a backlash to the over-the-top opulence of the 80s. Dresses became more streamlined. Emerging grunge and goth trends throughout the decade made black the go-to color.

Slip dresses in silk, satin, and velvet were also extremely popular. When Tom Ford took over Gucci in the mid-90s, his black backless and cut-out dresses quickly became collectors’ items.

Both the slip-dress and the bodycon were throwbacks to the wiggle of the 50s. Fashion does indeed repeat itself.

Shop 1990s bodycon dresses

To this day, the LBD remains an iconic fashion staple. It’s simplicity and classic style makes it the perfect choice for women of all ages and body types. As Wallis Simpson, the former Duchess of Windsor once said, “When the little black dress is right, there is nothing else to wear in its place.”

Check out my Little Black Dress Pinterest Board

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