A history of the little black dress

Story highlights

Vogue contributing editor Andre Leon Talley has curated a new exhibit of little black dresses

The dresses are imbued with Talley's memories and interpretations

The collection's 81 dresses represent glamour and practicality, Talley said

The wearer of a little black dress can infuse meaning into the fabric, Talley said

CNN  — 

“It’s a woman’s world,” Vogue contributing editor Andre Leon Talley said as he prepared an installation of little black dresses for a new exhibit at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Men don’t commonly wear little black dresses, which is why Talley asked some of his favorite female designers – plus Marc Jacobs, himself known for slipping into a tiny black number – to help define this iconic piece of clothing in the exhibit’s accompanying catalog.

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“I thought only a woman could define a little black dress,” he said.

But as a SCAD trustee and now curator of a museum exhibit consisting entirely of black dresses, Talley is inarguably an expert on the matter, too. The 81 dresses in his collection represent the glamorous and the practical, the revealing and the forgiving. The exhibit opened September 28 and will remain on display through January 27.

Little black dresses, as designer Norma Kamali puts it in the exhibit’s catalog, “take us to parties, job interviews, weddings and funerals. We experience all of life’s big events in the little black dress. It can be respectful or empowering, depending upon the design.”

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For Talley, the dresses represent the evolution of design, the achievement of world-class artists, glamour, even bravery. But perhaps just as striking as the elegance of these dresses is the fondness and pride with which Talley views them. Many of his friends either wore or designed the pieces in his exhibit, and in some cases, as with Stella McCartney and L’Wren Scott, it’s both. Talley believes that the woman wearing a little black dress can give it special meaning.

“Wearing clothes should be a personal narrative of emotion. I always respond to fashion in an emotional way,” Talley said.

“I was sitting in Manolo Blahnik’s store at Fashion’s Night Out last year,” he said, “and Sarah Jessica Parker was the first celebrity to breeze into the store.”

What stood out to Talley even more than his friend’s fluid leather Prabal Gurung skirt or the embellished bodice was the fact that Parker wore white pony-skin stilettos with the ensemble.

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“She had broken the rules that have been going on in fashion for decades,” Talley recalled. “The late Estee Lauder says you can never wear white shoes after Labor Day. But of course, in today’s world, that does not exist. And there was Sarah Jessica Parker with white shoes, with a black dress, after Labor Day. And I just said, you know, this is the example of how fashion goes forward.”

Designer Scott’s black strapless wool cocktail-length dress, with a kick pleat in the back of Chantilly lace, which she wore with black gloves, surprised Talley as well.

“I was at the Golden Globes the year she wore this dress, and she came up the carpet with Mick Jagger, and I thought, ‘mmm, this is a Chanel Haute Couture dress.’ And I was talking to L’Wren Scott about another dress in the exhibit, and I said, ‘Oh, do you remember you wore that fabulous Chanel dress to the Golden Globes? And I thought it was so elegant; I’m sure you picked out the dress for Nicole Kidman and you decided to wear it yourself!’ That was not the case. She had designed the dress the night before,” he said.

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Inventiveness and flair make a statement, Talley said, but so does wearability – something he finds in the designs of McCartney, whose dresses feature prominently in the exhibit. “Stella McCartney, not only is she a designer, she is a mother of four, and she lives for practicality. She understands what a woman needs to wear to work and what a woman needs to wear when it’s time to go out and put on the Ritz!”

Not least, a little black dress allows the wearer to accentuate her physical gifts, Talley said, like supermodel Linda Evangelista in a satin Prada dress.

“The thermometer of Linda Evangelista, in a satin peplum dress, looking every bit as aristocrat as a royal European duchess or princess, is amazing to me,” he said. “You know, it just doesn’t get any better than that. You see the way the person is wearing the dress, and you see the inherited quality of the design of the dress.”

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Rei Kawakubo, of Comme des Garcons, achieved that coup, Talley said, when designer Jacobs wore her black lace shirt dress with nothing but white boxer shorts underneath. The daring look opened the doors to the possibilities of men’s fashion.

“I think, in today’s America, there is a great leverage and a great sense of liberation” in men’s fashion, Talley said. “And I chose this dress with great care. I was there when Marc wore it; it was a very shock value moment,” but it was also a statement of elegance and confidence by a provocative designer.

“There is room in today’s world for men to wear dresses,” Talley said. “I’ve seen students on this campus going to classes wearing the most extraordinary kilts I’ve ever seen.”

Talley learned the students were wearing kilts that construction workers wear to hold their tools. “But it’s really a skirt!” he said.

Talley believes that if men are willing to put on utility kilts, sooner or later they’ll be putting on black lace dresses, like his friend Jacobs. He said so in all seriousness.

“This was not a frivolous moment here. This was not a moment of slap-dash. This was a moment where he knew what he was doing, was going to send signals around the world that you can, in fact, if you want to, wear a lace dress. If you want to go to the gym and spend hours buffing your body, if you want to be glamorized to the hilt with a lace dress and go to a show party dressed like this, it’s fine,” Talley said.

“(I was) very proud and very envious!”

Share your favorite “little black dress” memory in the comments section below.