Little Black Dress

Introduced in the late 1920s and first popular in the 1930s, the little black dress—a slim-fitting dress of varying length worn for dinners, cocktail parties, and evenings out—was one of the most popular fashions of the twentieth century. Along with blue jeans and the T-shirt, it is one of the most influential and important garments of the twentieth century.

The little black dress made its debut in May 1926, with a pen and ink drawing in Vogue magazine by designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883-1971). The magazine editors called the dress "Chanel's 'Ford,'" comparing the dress to the simply designed, economically priced black Ford Model T automobile.

The dress caused an instant uproar in the fashion world. Choosing black as a fashionable color was itself startling. Before Chanel, black clothing was associated with either the clergy or servants, or with mourning. But the simplicity and economy of the dress appealed to women of the 1930s Great Depression era, a time of severe economic turmoil after the stock market crash of 1929. With this simple item in their wardrobes, accessorized only with a string of pearls or a pair of high-heels, middle-class women and highsociety ladies could be equals. As Chanel said, "Thanks to me they [non-wealthy] can walk around like millionaires."

One of the first celebrities to popularize the little black dress was the cartoon character Betty Boop, the squeaky-voiced, well-proportioned creation of animator Max Fleischer (1883-1972). Wallis Simpson (1896-1986), the American who married the former king of England in 1937, also wore the dress and reportedly said, "When the little black dress is right, there is nothing else to wear in its place," as quoted by Valerie Mendes.

The woman who, according to expert Amy Holman Edelman, "made the little black dress an art form," was actress Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993). She wore a little black dress designed by Hubert de Givenchy (1927-) in the role of free-spirited Holly Golightly in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's.

By the end of the twentieth century almost every major designer from Ralph Lauren (1939-) to Donna Karan (1948-) had included a little black dress in their clothing lines. Amy Holman Edelman, who devoted an entire book, The Little Black Dress, to Chanel's creation, has called the dress "emblematic of a woman's freedom of choice, her equal participating in the world and her declaration that, this time, she is dressing for herself."


Costantino, Maria. Fashions of a Decade: The 1930s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Edelman, Amy Holman. The Little Black Dress. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Haedrich, Marcel. Coco Chanel: Her Life, Her Secrets. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1971.

Mendes, Valerie D. Dressed in Black. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

Men's Suits

^Despite the negative impact of the Great Depression (1929—41; a period of severe economic turmoil) that lasted throughout the 1930s, this period is thought of as one of the century's high points in men's suits. Perhaps as a way of rising above the money woes that troubled most people, the very wealthy and the very famous, especially male movie stars, chose beautifully tailored suits made of expensive fabrics. Wealthy criminals known as gangsters, who became a focus of public attention in the United States in the 1930s, also chose expensive suits. While common men couldn't afford such luxuries, they could buy suits that were modeled after the new styles.

The suit, of course, was the basic uniform of the well-dressed American male, both at work and for nightlife. The basic suit consisted of a jacket and trousers made of matching material; the three-piece suit also had a matching vest, or waistcoat. Both types of suits were worn throughout the Western world and, increasingly, in other parts of the world such as Japan and China. The basic silhouette, or shape, of the men's suit remained the same throughout the 1930s and featured broad shoulders, a narrowed waist, and loose-fitting, cuffed trousers. By the mid-1940s wartime restrictions called for men's suits to use less fabric, and suits became more closely fitted with no patch pockets or cuffs.

Tailors in London, England, especially those located in the city's famous Savile Row fashion district, set the standard for men's suits, and they popularized the best-known suit of the 1930s, the English drape. With wide, unpadded shoulders and a full-cut chest tapering to a slim waist, the jacket made men look strong. The trousers were cut very full and hung straight from the waist to the cuffed hem. Trousers were worn so high on the waist that belts would not work, so most men held their trousers in place with suspenders, or, as the English called them, braces. The most popular fabric for men's suits was wool, and weaves with a twill or a herringbone (a weave that creates rows of parallel lines sloping in opposite directions) pattern were very common.

A striking contrast to the English drape suit was the glen plaid suit, another product of Great Britain. Glen plaid was the name of the fabric used to make the suit, and it was a boldly patterned plaid, a checkered pattern. The suit was first worn by England's Prince of Wales in 1923, but it became popular among college students in the 1930s.

Up until the mid-1930s men tended to wear the same suits year-round, even though wool was often hot and heavy during the summer months. Beginning in the mid-1930s, however, tailors and clothes makers introduced the summer-weight suit. Tropical worsted, a lightweight wool, rayon, or silk, were used, and they cut a suit's weight nearly in half. Most summer suits were worn without a vest.

No matter what suit a man wore, it was always accompanied by a carefully chosen hat and tie. Some men also wore a creased handkerchief in their breast pocket, and the truly stylish carried a walking stick.


Costantino, Maria. Fashions of a Decade: The 1930s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Keers, Paul. A Gentleman's Wardrobe: Classic Clothes and the Modern Man. New York: Harmony Books, 1987.

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Schoeffler, O. E., and William Gale. Esquire's Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men's Fashions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.

Military uniforms exist for nearly the opposite reasons of fashionable civilian, or non-military, clothes. Civilian clothes are intended to flatter the wearer, to keep up with current trends in cut and fabric, and generally to be beautiful. Military uniforms, on the other hand, are intensely practical. They are meant to provide protection from the elements, to offer storage for the many items soldiers carry, and to identify soldiers in the chaos of war. Despite these

■ Military Civilian Dress

Bill Schoeffler

Though designed to protect and identify soldiers, military uniforms came to have an enormous impact on the manufacture of civilian clothing. Reproduced by permission of© Bettmann/


Though designed to protect and identify soldiers, military uniforms came to have an enormous impact on the manufacture of civilian clothing. Reproduced by permission of© Bettmann/


vast differences, advances made in the manufacturing of military uniforms had a direct impact on civilian dress during and after

As first the major European countries and then the United States entered the war, they each found it necessary to clothe thousands and thousands of soldiers in durable, reasonably well-fitting uniforms tailored to the special needs of different kinds of activity. European countries found that their clothing producers were not able to keep up with demand. Most clothing makers made hundreds of batches of clothes, but the military needed thousands. Standards for determining sizes and for determining what it cost to make an item were very rough.

In the United States, however, clothing manufacturers had become very skilled at making ready-to-wear clothes in the 1920s and 1930s. Feeding the large American market, they had learned how to make huge numbers of well-fitting clothes at competitive prices. When the United States entered the war in 1941 these manufacturers stepped in to make uniforms for American soldiers. The United States also sent teams of clothing experts to Britain to help their allies employ better manufacturing methods. American skill and productivity at making all manner of war supplies, including uniforms, surprised the world and was one of the keys to eventual victory in the war.

The skills gained in producing military uniforms had a direct impact on civilian clothes manufacturing after the war. Clothing makers had learned how to make many thousands of an item at a low price, and they improved the quality and sizing of the garments they produced. As fabric supplies gradually returned to normal after the war, clothing manufacturers in Europe and the United States were able to offer a steady supply of comfortable ready-to-wear clothes to consumers eager for new products. The quality of these garments narrowed the gap between the clothes worn by the wealthy and those worn by the poor, making good clothing available to more people than ever before.


Baker, Patricia. Fashions of a Decade: The 1940s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Darman, Peter. Uniforms of World War //.Edison, NJ: Chartwell Books, 1998.

Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Twentieth Century Fashion. Revised by Alice Mackrell. Lanham, MD: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992.

Fussell, Paul. Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

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