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The Little Black Dress of Yore

I don’t need to much go into the history or origin of the famous ‘Little Black Dress’ as except to mention that it was Coco Chanel who brought it in fashion, rescuing it from its relegation to traditional mourning wear. (The irony of my lamenting the incessant donning of ‘widow’s weeds’ prevalent today is not lost on me.)

American Vogue dubbed it in 1926, ‘The Chanel “Ford” – the frock that all the world will wear.’ How right they were!

In 1960, less than 40 years later, E. Merriam, a writer on the fashion industry said: ‘Functional: a simple black dress that costs more than $100. Understated: A simple black dress that costs more than $200. Nothing: A black dress that costs more than $300, as in “a little Nettie Rosenstein nothing.”’

I’ve never heard of Nettie Rosenstein (1890–1980). She was in fact renowned for her little black dresses, running the gamut from day dress to evening, and also for costume jewellery. She was born in Austria, and her family migrated to America in the 1890s. Her fashion label was based in New York City between c.1913–1975, beginning with a home dressmaking business. In 1919, she was approached by the I. Magnin department store, and she began wholesaling; two years later she opened her own establishment. [Wikipedia]

Divine 1930s dresses by Nettie Rosenstein (original links of images broken)Unsurprisingly, I own only one LBD, this late 1950s or early 60s dress above – ‘Baker of Melbourne’ – which I bought in a vintage store many years ago. It dips into a vee at the back, and originally had a small white floral lace appliqué on the right shoulder – a tasteful one – but one day I removed it. It’s a pity I don’t know what became of it. I wear this dress very rarely.

I do have a casual black jersey dress as well, which is designed on Grecian lines that I wear on hot days as it is loose and comfortable, and also a Large Black Dress of black silk satin, with a lace insert on the bodice. I call it my ‘summer Gothic’ dress, as while the top is comfortably light for hot weather, the floor-length skirt is divided into three tiers that billow out dramatically.

‘The little black dress always looks better in white.’ — Bill Blass

I am a proponent of the Little White Dress however, and own many. I wholeheartedly agree with Bill Blass, the New York fashion designer who quipped in 2002, ‘The little black dress always looks better in white.’

Below are some tearsheets that are admittedly quite old (May 2001), but they show some seminal moments in the history of the LBD. (Doris Day’s 1959 dress is cut on similar lines to my own.) Click the images for larger versions.

Fashion quotations from: A to Z of Style, Amy de la Haye, V & A Publishing 2011.

Photo: April 2016

From Australian In Style magazine, May 2001From Australian In Style magazine, May 2001

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