Monday, June 8, 2009

The Little Black Dress

Cocktails and its accompanying special attire is truly an American invention. From the jazz babies of the 1920’s speakeasies to the darlings of the 70’s discos, once it became socially acceptable for women to drink in public, they had to have a proper wardrobe for their new found social activities. Designers were only too happy to accommodate this burgeoning new fashion trend. Clothing for drinking and dancing had to be chic, sexy and a little less formal than an evening gown, but dressier than day wear. Hence cocktail wear was born. Though it wasn’t until the 1950’s that Christian Dior actually coined the phrase “cocktail dress.”

Cocktail fashions were introduced in the roaring 20s when “flappers”, celebrating their liberation from the restrictive garments of previous decades, wore loose, knee baring, beaded and fringed chemises. Perfect to accommodate those Charleston kicks.

When the stock market plummeted in the 30's, so did hemlines. People took to the movies as an escape from their worries about the economy. Actresses glided across the silver screen wearing sultry, ankle-grazing bias cut dresses in silk and satin. Hollywood glamorized the cocktail party and everyone wanted to entertain like the carefree, martini sipping couple, Nick and Nora Charles of the “Thin Man” series.

The fabric rationing of the war years presented a challenge for 40's clothing manufacturers. Without Paris couture to look to for fashion inspiration, American designers were left to their own creativity. With less material to work with they still managed to produce stylish evening wear. The shorter, leaner silhouette was often covered with beaded and sequined appliqués, and draping was often incorporated to add a needed touch of glamour to the more conservative fashions of that time.

After the war, the country’s economy boomed. With fabric no longer being rationed, the sky was the limit as too how much material went into the latest designer fashions. Also, GI’s returning from the Pacific brought gifts of clothing from exotic locales. This afforded women many more fashion options for the “cocktail hour.” In newly developed suburbs across America, 50’s housewives sipped manhattans in Asian cheongsams, Hawaiian sarongs and tight bodiced, full skirted dresses a la Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly.

In the 60s and 70s cocktail dresses ran the gamut from Jacqueline Kennedy inspired elegant brocade sheaths to futuristic minidresses, floaty loungewear inspired kaftans and handkerchief hemmed disco outfits.

Today cocktail party attire very often reflects the glamour of the past, as designers continue to incorporate elements of these classic vintage styles into their current creations. So whenever a woman steps out in her latest little black dress for an evening of sipping champagne or cosmopolitans, a bit of fashion history goes with her!

From top to bottom: little black dresses of today; Marilyn Monroe; Jacqueline Kennedy; Grace Kelly on the cover of Life magazine; flapper dresses of the 20's and 30's; bias cut dress; and dancing the Charleston at Capitol Hill