I was shopping with my mom recently when we came across the coolest Nicholas black mesh, tea-length dress. I tried it on. It was amazing. But then I lamented, “Where would I wear it?” Her response: “It never hurts to have a good black dress hanging in your closet. They’re timeless.” Such are the sentiments from the new exhibit at the Missouri History Museum. Called the Little Black Dress: From Mourning to Night, the exhibit traces the history of the LBD from its early roots as strictly funeral wear, to the women’s wardrobe staple it is today.
The entry to the exhibit, lined with images of St. Louis women in their little black dresses.
I thought the most interesting part of the exhibit was the dresses of the 18th century, an era in which black was worn only in times of mourning. There were even societal rules dictating how and when it was to be donned. There were three stages to mourning a close family member or spouse. For example, if you were in “Full Mourning” (the first stage) and a widow, you were only allowed to wear dull, wool, black dresses with little to no detail. This period lasted for exactly one year and one day. Crazy, right? Mourning the loss of a family member whom was not a spouse has less strict rules, but rules nonetheless.
In the second phase, women could add white trim and some detail into their dress, but a black dress it had to be and still had to be worn for 9 months. The third and final stage, called “Half Mourning” let women introduce shades of grey into their wardrobe- including mauve and lavender- as well as subtle patterns. This lasted for 6 months to life for widows. FOR life! I mean, I like wearing black as much as the next girl, but can you imagine wearing it all day every day for the rest of your life?? Must be what it feels like to live in New York.
An 18th Century LBD, worn while mourning the loss of a loved one.
It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century that black garments became more popular in daily dress. Wearing black was a fashion statement with some practical appeal, as it hid the stains and dirt of everyday life. And of course, Coco Chanel was the leader of the black dress pack. She continually eschewed the colorful frocks popular in her day and is perhaps most responsible for the popularity of the LBD as we know it today. There are four Chanel dresses in the exhibit, including one so old it has a label “Gabrielle Chanel” (Coco’s birth name) and is thought to date back to 1919. One of my favorite’s is a black, shirred crepe Chanel dress with amazing detail, that would still look relevant if you saw it walking down the street today.
Coco Chanel’s dresses have their own room in the exhibit.
The area where visitors can add to a collection of LBD “memories.”
The exhibit follows the LBD through the 20th century with dresses from designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene, along with many other designers I did not recognize. Two local designers got a spot in the show: Michael Drummond, a St. Louisian who rose to fame on Project Runway Season 8 displays a teeny, avant garde black dress. And then there is a (very ho-hum) knee length silk dress by Baby Phat’s Kimora Lee Simmons, also a St. Louis native.
Don’t go into this exhibit looking for haute couture… it reads more like a history lesson (most of the dresses were from the Missouri Historical Society’s collection) rather than a peek inside the Costume Institute of the Met. But if you’re local, it’s worth checking out. I loved seeing all the dresses together – with only their color as a unifying characteristic- and learning the history behind them. Plus, after seeing this huge collection of LBD’s, I won’t put mine on again without thinking of all those that came before.
Some LBD’s from the 1900’s, when the color black was no longer reserved only for mourning.
The exhibit is free and open to the public. It will be on display until September 5th.