The next must have item in our capsule closet has to be the little black dress also known as L.B.D. In fact I would go so far as categorically stating that no modern women’s wardrobe can be considered complete if it does not have one of them. The popularity of this must have item has by Fashion Historians been ascribed to the 1920’s designs of Coco Chanel.
Lets pay homage to this incredible women by finding out a little bit more about them.
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel was born on the 19th August 1883 in Saumur, Maine-et-Loire, France to Eugenie Jeanne Devolle (who went by the name of Jeanne) her Mother who was unmarried and her father, Albert Chanel. Her mother was a laundrywoman who spent her days working at a charity hospital which was run by the Sisters of Providence. This was a government run facility which took care of and gave support to the very needy in society. Coco had an older sister called Julia who was born less than a year earlier.
Her father made a living peddling work clothes and undergarments traveling to and from market towns to do so. After being persuaded to marry her by her family the couple wed in 1884. When she was born, Coco’s name was entered into the official registry as “Chasnel”,her mother Jeanne was to unwell to attend the registration. With both parents absent, the infants’s name was misspelled – suspicion being that it was a clerical mistake. The couple had three other children, another girl and two boys. Growing up was extremely cramped as they resided in a one-room lodging in the town of Brive-la-Gallarde, France.
Tragically her mother died of Tuberculosis when she was 12, her mother perishing at the young age of 32. Her brothers were sent to work as farm labourers and her father sent his three daughters to a convent called Aubazine in Correze which is about 10 km’s away from Brive-la-Gallarde. The orphanage , was “founded to care for the poor and rejected, including running homes for abandoned and orphaned girls”. Life in the orphanage was stark, sparse and the nuns demanded strict discipline. Historians agree that despite the tragic circumstances which landed her in the orphanage, it was here where she learned to sew. When she turned eighteen, she went to live in a boarding house for Catholic girls in the town of Moulins. Interestingly it is widely reported that Chanel would tell a somewhat different version of her own childhood when she was older often telling people that after her mother died, her father sailed to America to persue his fortune. Or that she was sent to live with her Aunts. It seems she regailed a far more glamorous childhood than the tragic one afforded to her which saw her loose her mother at such a young age and her being sent to grow up in an institution.
Her name Coco arose from a somewhat different earlier career she enjoyed as a singer – albeit a brief one. She would sing at various clubs in Vichy and Moulins in France. Chanel herself is quoted as saying the name is a “shortened version of cocotte, the French word for ‘kept woman’”. It soon became apparent that a stage career was not for her.
An association with Etienne Balson when she was twenty years old prompted her early foray into fashion when he assisted her in starting a millinery business in Paris. When she met Arthur “Boy” Capel – an even wealthier associate of Etienne’s she promptly dumped him. The stylish Arthur was an impeccably dressed man and his influence is widely associated with Chanel’s concept look. Her first boutique was opened in 1913 in Deauville with Arthur’s financial assistance. The store introduced the world to her range of casual and sportswear. It marked the start of future success. By 1915 a second boutique opened its doors in Biarritz. The establishment of her Maison de couture at 31 rue Cambon took place in 1919.
Coco Chanel introduced the world to the Little Black Dress in the 1920’s. Her intention being that the dress be affordable and easy-to-wear this being in stark contrast to the restrictive fashion of the time which included constrictive corsets which were used an essential piece of underwear forcing a women’s waist thinner. She will remain forever enshrined in the fashion worlds hall of fame for freeing women of corsets, daring them to wear short skirts – short enough for their ankles to be shown in public. It is for this and her elegant, comfortable and practical approach to women’s fashion that revolutionized the world of women’s fashion forever.
In 1921 Coco introduced the world to her first fragrance – named after her as – Chanel No. Five. The Number Five was included as Chanel had been told it was her lucky number by a fortune teller. This floral scent was created by Ernest Beaux and he was briefed by Chanel to create a perfume that ‘smelled like a women”. She did not want it to smell like a rose or lily of valley but rather as a floral composition. The original scent has been adapted since then by Henri Robert and Jacques Polge
‘I am told that when Mlle Chanel met Ernest Beaux she asked him to create ‘a perfume that will make even the perfumers jealous’. She said he could use the richest products available, and so he used the best he had – jasmine from Grasse, May rose, a special quality of ylang-ylang – and, at the end, he added some aldehydes to let all that richness fly a little,’ Polge said.
Chanel No. 5 was adored by Marilyn Monroe who family said she wears Chanel No. 5 and nothing else to bed. The perfume remains on the best selling perfumes in the world – adored by celebrities and man across the world.
During the World War II, she was accused of being a Nazi spy. At the end of the war in 1945 Chanel moved to Switzerland. She remained there for nine years eventually returning to Paris in 1954, this marked the re-opening of her couture houses. Chanel, aged 71 is reportedly to have told the famous actress Marlene Dietrich that it was because she was “dying of boredom”. Her new collection wasn’t well received by Parisians as the taint of being a Nazi spy continued to haunt her. However, her designs were well regarded and endorsed by the British and the Americans.
Another iconic Chanel piece is undoubtedly the Chanel Handbag which was created in 1955. Owning one of these incredible handbags is akin to being accepted into an exclusive sorority. For decades the classic flap has been incredibly sought after. The 2.55 Reissued helped revive the style of this icon in the mid 2000’s. The redesign appealed to a modern looking new generation of customers who didn’t want to be seen wearing their mothers handbags.
Many other designers and retailers from Urban Outfitters to Marc Jacobs has been accused of stealing from Chanel’s signature bag, and there’s a good reason for that – it’s timeless, iconic and still as relevant to luxury customers today as it was back in the 1950s. Chain straps and quilted leather have become nearly synonymous with the idea of the designer handbag, and the Chanel flap may even be more well-known across the world than the illustrious handbag holy grail, the Hermes Birkin. Its pricey at about $ 3,000 but then again you would be buying one of the most sought after handbags in the world and you would own a legend.
On 10 January 1971 Chanel died at the hotel Ritz in Paris at the age of 87. It is widely reported that she uttered her last words to her maid Celine were, “You see, this is how you die.” A recent biography written by Lisa Chaney called “Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life” lays claim that she frequently used opiates and considered the use of morphine as a simple sedative. All of which surfaced with discovered love letters and other archives which go on to claim her bisexuality. Chanel’s funeral was organized at eglise de Madeleine. She rests in peace in the Bois-de-Vaux Cemetery, Lausanne, Switzerland.
Her life has been captured on two films both released in 2009: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky starring Anna Mouglalis and based on a novel of the same name, and Coco before Chanel starring Audrey Tautou.
No matter what is portrayed of her posthumously, her influence on the fashion world is unmistakable and her legacy will remain forever. When a women today puts on a pair of trouser she can credit Chanel that she no longer needs to be squeezed into a corset. Jackie Kennedy was wearing one of her pink suits on the day JFK was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. In the 1980’s Karl Lagerfield took over as head of design and he is much credited with appealing to a younger more modern women. The company owns 100 boutiques around the world and is still one of the most recognized names in fashion and perfume.
In his book, Chanel: A Woman of Her Own, Axel Madsen says, “Coco was the Pied Piper who led women away from complicated, uncomfortable clothes to a simple, uncluttered, and casual look that is still synonymous with her name. It conveys prestige, quality, taste, and unmistakable style.”
Today her namesake company continues to thrive. Although it is privately held, it is believed to generate hundreds of millions in sales each year.
When I think of a black dress I fondly remember my first trip to the far east in 2007. A shopping trip to the famous Xiushui Street in Beijing. The Market is in the extension line of Chang’an Street, near to International CBD Commercial Area, so it enjoys convenient location and transport.
Among the extensive variety of goods on offer ranging from branded clothes, shoes, bags, leather goods, sportswear, handicrafts, jewelry, antiques, calligraphy, clocks, watches and glasses to name a few I came across a black dress which caught my eye. We were a bit weary after making our way through the maze of people selling their goods. The reason for our weariness stemming from the sellers clutching on to you and whinging that you must by their goods and having to be quite abrupt and stern with them to get rid of them. It quickly dawned on me to avoid making an eye contact with any sellers as this was an invitation for a sale…I can distinctly remember the sound of “best price” and “only so many $’s” as clear as if it were yesterday.
The black dress was an exquisite Chloe black dress – complete with a mandarin collar and ruffled detail on the bodice. The pleated skirt was pure perfection with a ribbon belt which perfectly accentuated the waist. IT WAS PERFECT and then I tried it on…EVEN MORE PERFECT that it was hanging up in all its splendid glory. Then I heard the price which was a little more than I was budgeting on spending but I thought surely I can haggle down the price. So I began in earnest with a price which was immediately cut down – No the price remained. According to my colleague Amanda who was on hand to assist with the translation who also attempted (in Mandarin I might add) to negotiate better terms – the dress was the actual one the real deal and not a knock off. Hence the price was justified and not negotiable. With a heavy heart I exercised restraint and walked away. Everything else in the market after seeing that glorious dress was boring, plain and to me at least uninteresting. As our visit to the market was drawing to its inevitable conclusion my head filled with horror that I might never get a chance to wear that dress. I simply could not leave without that dress – it was haunting me. No matter which way we tried the seller was not budging – not even an inch – not even when we argued that if she was a licensed agent she would have to give me a warranty something she was unwilling to do. So I handed over the cash and the dress looked similar to this one:
I am pleased to report that the dress still hangs in my closet (although I fear it might not fit at the moment as I am carrying some Winter weight which I need to shed). Equally pleased to report that the dress has attended important events, weddings and sadly a few funerals. It has been there for girlfriends who have equally needed a Little Black Dress for an occasion – in fact it forms part of a travelling wardrobe between the girlfriends.
It must be said that the dress – with its classic feminine style – has been worth every cent. The dress wears beautifully, launders well and remains in perfect shape. Whilst I may not have acquired it from a licensed Chloe Store or Agent it’s longevity has been curious to me as to its true origins.
Or perhaps it is simply the nostalgia of remembering those items you buy when you are visiting foreign lands. They unlock memories, smells, sights and sounds with them of that trip. We have a standing joke at home that my husband only shops when he is abroad – cause oh boy can he shop! It is like the minute he gets to a foreign land he becomes a true shopper. I will never forget the look of sheer delight and enjoyment when we entered an Abercrombie and Finch store in Singapore. Oh and they smell great – whatever they use to scent their stores with.
Regrettably for us mere mortals, travels to foreign lands to acquire your full wardrobe is not quite realistic at this stage. However, with the incredible technology at our fingertips today we can order anything, from anywhere, pay for it and have it delivered. It is truly amazing and astounding.
So no matter what the event is you going to be it a funeral, dinner, dance or even a wedding a little black dress will work. It remains chic, modern and relevant even after all these years. One of the most iconic and stylish women of our times, Diana was often seen wearing a stylish Little Black Dress. I have recently listened to the Audiobook “Diana: In her own Words” by Andrew Morton which is a series of the Icon’s own insights recorded during “Morton tapes,” of secret interviews recorded by the princess and sent to the journalist. The one story which I recall is during the early years, Charles admonished Diana for wearing black to an event and she simply ignored his “oh no wearing black is for a funeral comment” and wore that Little Black Dress. By the way if you are a massive fan of her then you simply have to listen to the audio book which strikes a deep chord as it is her voice, her thoughts, her fears, her delights and her love of the boys which is so unscripted and real. Well worth a listen. You will really admire those royal heirs even more…
So as is immortalized in Coco Chanel and Diana to name a few the Little Black Dress is really worthy of its status as a staple piece and building block of any women’s wardrobe.
So here are some of my investment Little Black Dresses that I would recommend:
I hope you have enjoyed this as much as I have putting together its roots and giving the Little Black Dress an insight into its illustrious history which is continuing to evolve among each and everyone of us.