Little black dresses - fashion forward or forgettable fashion?

Local opinions vary about necessity of purported fashion staple

Local opinions vary about necessity of purported fashion staple

November 11, 2007|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Bonnie Shockey's little black dress is chocolate brown.

"When I wear black, I look as white as Casper the ghost," said Shockey, 58, of Antrim Township, Pa. "So my little black dress is brown."

Shockey isn't the only one who would rather do without the so-called fashion staple.

"It's really a jacket and pants set with a tuxedo stripe down the side," said Patti Anderson, 53, of Smithsburg, describing what she wears in lieu of the little black dress. "Does that count?"

A little black dress is a sometimes formal, sometimes casual frock called "little" because it's not a formal, floor-length gown. But just how important is it for every woman to own a little black dress?


Tim Gunn - host of Bravo's reality makeover show, "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style" - declared that a "little black dress" was among the 10 "essential items" of a woman's wardrobe (a trench coat and a "sweatsuit alternative" also are on Gunn's list).

Academics, historians and fashion experts have written books about the topic. There's even Little Black Dress wine.

But do most women consider the dress a must-have item in their wardrobes?

It's a split decision.

In interviews for this story, women who owned a little black dress thought every woman must have one. Those without one said they didn't see the point.

A survey conducted by market research firm Synovate in July 2006 asked 1,007 women between the ages of 18 and 54 to choose their favorite outfit for holiday parties - choosing from jeans, pantsuits, red dresses and little black dresses.

The results were spread fairly evenly across the options.

The majority of women, 32 percent, chose little black dresses, while 29 percent chose jeans and 25 percent choose pantsuits. Red dresses were least popular, at only 14 percent.

An informal Herald-Mail query of 10 women at Valley Mall wielded mixed results - five of them said they had a little black dress, the rest said they did not.

Sandra Aldrich-Mihich, 66, of Falling Waters area, W.Va., said she owns at least 20 little black dresses.

"I have no children, no pets," Aldrich-Mihich said. "I have a husband who wants me to look beautiful."

Owning a little black dress isn't a priority for Lindsey Stull, 17, of Boonsboro, a freshman accounting major attending classes at University System of Maryland at Hagerstown.

"I don't like dresses," Stull said. "I'd rather wear a pair of dress pants and a button-down shirt. I don't even do skirts."

Pat Schleigh, 71, of Hagerstown, said the only reason she doesn't own one is because she couldn't find one she liked.

"I guess the ideal black dress would be one that didn't show everything I have," Schleigh said. "For women my age, clothes are really ugly."

Brandy Cartnail, 25, of Hagerstown, gets lots of mileage out of her little black dress. "It's something simple that you can wear to all occasions."

Retailers seem to have reached a consensus on where they think such a dress stands with their clients.

"It's a must-have item for every woman's wardrobe" was what each of the downtown Hagerstown boutique owners interviewed for this story had to say about the little black dress.

"If you don't have one, you absolutely need one," said Katie Trent, 27, of Hagerstown, co-owner and buyer for Alter Ego, a new downtown Hagerstown store that caters to 18- to 35-year-olds.

Shana Ringer, owner of The Boutique, also in downtown Hagerstown, said black dresses are a big seller at her shop.

"Black's just a basic color. When you don't know what to put on, you put on black," Ringer said. "I would think most women have (a little black dress)."

Lola Mosby, one of the owners of L&L Classic Clothing Consignment shop downtown, said she doesn't get many black dresses in her shop because women tend to keep them.

"But when we do get them in, they go fast," Mosby said.

Where did the little black dress come from?

Why all the hubbub about little black dresses?

"It's a chorus that's been sung since 1910 - (a little black dress) may be a little boring, but it's always useful," said Valerie Steele, author of "The Black Dress" (HarperCollins 2007) and director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT, part of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

Steele said 1910 was when the initial concept of the little black dress emerged, shortly after the death of British King Edward VII. The black dresses women wore to mourn the king were as much a sign of elegance as they were a sign of mourning.

Karin Bohleke, director of Shippensburg University's Fashion Archives Museum in Shippensburg, Pa., said black dresses in social settings outside of mourning were briefly in vogue in the U.S. during the 1850s.

The idea of wearing black for something other than a funeral dates back much further. Steele said wearing black was a sign of power and prestige and black was worn by European elites in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Conservativeness and social correctness are other characteristics often associated with the color black, Bohleke said.

Coco Chanel is credited with bringing forth the modern conception of the little black dress in the early 20th century, Steele said. Designers Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga spurred it to further fame in the 1950s, she said.

Steele said the loud, saturated colors of the '60s and part of the '70s put the little black dress on the back burner. Punk fashion revived the little black dress in the late 1970s, as the color black itself became more popular. Edgy Japanese designers kept the little black dress current in the 1980s, Steele said.

"Black hasn't let go since then," Steele said.

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