Monday, August 1, 2011

That Little Black Dress

Collections:  I remember an exhibit in London at the Fashion and Textile Museum entitled, "Little Black Dress".  It was around 2008 or 09 I believe.  I thought that it might be fun to muse on the subject myself, since, as a collector, one is always presented with the opportunity to acquire one.  I don't know how other collectors feel on the subject, but I have noticed that the sheer quantity of black or white garments available from dealers or on ebay demonstrates the historical popularity of these neutrals.

Contrary to popular assumptions, black isn't nor has it ever been solely used for observing the ritual of mourning.  We probably inherited that opinion, like so many others, from our Victorian grandmothers, who were obviously influenced by the Queen herself.  Black can be seen in the portraits of the fashionable as early as the Renaissance and 19th century artists, such as Ingres, Whistler and Tissot were masters at capturing its subtleties.  In fact, this neutral was quite expensive to produce due to the instability of the dyes and consequently the most expensive textiles could be acquired in black.  It has denoted rank and authority, hence its popularity in men's wear, and of course has had strong religious associations for many cultures, like the Anabaptists, Amish and the old order Mennonites, the Dutch Reformers of the 17th centuries, and Muslim faiths.  Add to this, the fact that it hid dirt well, in an age when cleaning textiles was next to impossible, and its popularity must have been born more of neccessity than preference.

But when exactly did we throw away our Victorian notions and associations with death and embrace that highly prized, "Little Black Dress?"  An editorial staple since the 20th century phenomenon began.

Ingres, Madame Le Blanc
Sargent, Madame X
While both artists were masters at catching the nuisances of black, Victorian society was particularly shocked by Whistler's portrait.  Not so much the colour, but the lack of sleeves.
Below, the use of black for women's sports wear.  When Bonnie Butler, the daughter of Rhett and Scarlett, needed a new riding outfit, Rhett wanted to defy convention by ordering one in blue.  "A basic black broadcloth is what li'l girls wear." So Mammy admonished!

Riding outfit, circa 1860

Edwardian Swimsuit
Why are the hottest of pursuits performed in black?  Luckily, tennis and croquet costumes were generally in white.  (We'll address it next time)

Victoria 1862
Forever our associations with the use of black. Until......

Black velvet and jet ball gown, circa 1895

Beaded Tulle, circa 1910

Trompe l'oeil dress.  Necklace, belt and bracelets are actually beaded on the garment!

cuff detail

Dior, Taffeta

When Barbie had influence!

Who could forget what Audrey did for this colour.

Breakfast at Tiffany's
Or when a woman is seeking revenge, black is always useful in the right hands!

Recollections:  Like any collector, I try to acquire as wide a representation of the development of dress as I can.  The advantage to collecting black or white garments, is that the eye is free to concentrate on the silhouette and not be distracted by the textile. Still, having said that, whenever possible, a neutral garment will be passed on or traded as soon as a more interesting coloration makes itself available.  When re-creating, I will accent with black, but have yet to tackle the all black costume.

Authors collection, circa 1908

Ambitions:  If you are not familiar with the fairly new Fashion and Textile Museum in London then be sure to put it on your list for the next time you visit.  Their focus is on fashion from 1950-present.  An area that is just beginning to draw the interest of other institutions.

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