Back in Black: 100 Years of the Little Black Dress at National Museums Scotland

Models Shannon Summers, Joshua Cairns and Grace Dempsey arrive at the National Museum of Scotland ahead of the opening of the exhibition. Image © Duncan McGlynn.
Models Shannon Summers, Joshua Cairns and Grace Dempsey arrive at the National Museum of Scotland ahead of the opening of the exhibition. Image © Duncan McGlynn.

Title:
Beyond the Little Black Dress

From: 1 Jul 2023

To: 29 Oct 2023

Venue:
National Museum of Scotland
Chambers St
Edinburgh
Edinburgh & the Lothians
EH1 1JF

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Yufei Xiang, Textile Conservator at National Museums Scotland, installs a rare 1926 Chanel dress ahead of the opening of the exhibition. The dress is on loan from Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum. © Chanel. Image Duncan McGlynn.
Yufei Xiang, Textile Conservator at National Museums Scotland, installs a rare 1926 Chanel dress ahead of the opening of the exhibition. The dress is on loan from Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum. © Chanel. Image Duncan McGlynn.

It’s hard to believe that Coco Chanel’s Little Black Dress is getting on for a hundred years old. Such is its iconic status, the simple ‘shift’ shape with its boxy lines and above-the-knee hem has been reborn in a multitude of versions across the decades ever since. 

Lace Noir dress, by Judy R Clark © David Stanton

Launched in 1926 amid a turbulent decade for women’s activism where rights, roles, gender identity and dress codes were under fire, the LBD (as fashionistas are wont to describe it) created such a stir that it became a lightning rod for activists, conservatives, performers and politicians alike. It seems US Vogue was right in its assertion that against the odds, the LBD was ‘the frock that all the world will wear’. 

This striking new exhibition follows the story down through the decades since that explosive debut, to explore the continuing allure of fashion as a call to arms. And more importantly, why the colour black in style became so overloaded with significance that it still raises headlines and temperatures to this day.  

‘Hellbound dress’, Christopher Kane, Fall/Winter 2022. Henri Bergmann aka DJ Henri attends The Fashion Awards 2022 at Royal Albert Hall on December 5, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)

The exhibition room is suitably draped in black, which allows the exhibits to shimmer under focused lighting. Exciting shapes and occasional popping colours heave into view as each stance guides us on a journey which not only celebrates the art of design, but cleverly leads us through the cultural, spiritual, social, political and sexual signifiers that still get establishment-types worked up.

Iconic early pieces by Yves Saint Laurent, Dior and Schiaparelli are juxtaposed against innovative contemporary designers like Gareth Pugh, Simone Rocha and Off-White. It’s easy to see why many of these forceful designs created such a stir on their unveiling, especially those which borrow from Islam and Christianity. Many designers purloined the shapes and shades of religions, emptying the colour black of its spiritual meaning (grief, modesty and mourning), and turning it on its head to create stylish and funky celebrations of society.

‘Florence’ hood and ‘Spray’ dress by Cimone, Autumn/Winter 2017. © Cimone Ltd. Image © Rhiannon Adam
‘Florence’ hood and ‘Spray’ dress by Cimone, Autumn/Winter 2017. © Cimone Ltd. Image © Rhiannon Adam

Ex-punks and modern goths will love the DIY aesthetic represented by materials such as leather, latex, rubber, PVC, plus some fierce and delightfully exuberant designs of underwear worn as outer-wear (think bodices, petticoats, corsets and lace), featuring evening dresses by Franco Moschino and Belville Sassoon. A Zandra Rhodes punk wedding dress built from acetate satin, crystal and metal could easily be worn at a function today while Gareth Pugh embodies the aesthetic by turning bin bags into ballooning ball gowns. His materials came from a North London poundshop!

As befits a celebration of ‘black’, a full section of the exhibition highlights black British designers whose work explores identity and the role the colour plays in crafting an Afro-futuristic aesthetic, where the design of garments is used to imagine fantastical worlds. Elsewhere, a film from Osman Yousefzada exposes the inequities inherent in the creation of fast fashion, where the underbelly of low-paid, diligent factory workers struggle to keep the world dressed in the latest trends.

That the curators can wrest so much cultural significance from a collection of garments is testament to their diligent research and passion for the subject.

With many thanks to Malcom McGonigle for this review.

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