October 1,1926 marks the Officially Recognized Day of the introduction of the designer’s iconic and history-making Little Black Dress. American Vogue magazine ran a small illustration of what it called Chanel’s “Ford” dress, likening the modest garment to the reliable Model-T of the era and hearkening Henry Ford’s line, “any customer can have a car painted in any color that he wants so long as it’s black.” This was a time when twice a month, Vogue faithfully offered lengthy reviews of the Paris fashions, page after page of sketches of the latest coats, dresses, hats and gloves from the top French designers. Vogue did not mention it again for some time, though the following month Vogue Paris called it the “uniform for the modern woman.” It’s helpful to keep in mind that the idea of a “little black dress” wasn’t exactly appealing to the average 1926 woman. This was an era when, for the first time in American history, young women were moving to cities—often alone—and taking smart jobs in offices and boutiques. The flapper lifestyle was racy even by today’s standards: The cute bobbed hair, heavy makeup, loosely belted coats; unbuckled galoshes were accessorized with a lifestyle of cocktails, cigarettes, Charleston’s and casual sex.
“Shopping” as a verb was only just entering the vocabulary as a form of recreation, not as in, “I need to shop for groceries,” but as in “let’s go shopping!” Of course these fresh, young revolutionary women would have had little interest in one of Gabriella “Coco” Chanel’s dreary smocks; they already owned one black dress for funerals only, thank you very much, and had no interest in spending what little money they had on another.
The inspiration behind Chanel’s black dress is equally glum, or at least that’s how legend tells it. The story goes that the designer began wearing black when her lover Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel died in 1919, and the first black dresses she designed thereafter “were inspired by the simple black mourning attire worn by peasant women in the French villages she knew as a child,” wrote journalist Paula Dietz some 60 years later. But as the Twenties came to a close, a handful of events hastened the rise of the little black dress. First, Black Tuesday hit on October 29, 1929, and fortunes began to disappear, ending a devil-may-care era and beginning one of frugality and practicality. The new movie houses offered a cheap form of entertainment, and there audiences watched glamorous stars wearing the black dresses that photographed so sharply on film. At the same time, the American clothing manufacturers who traveled to Paris several times a year to copy designs began recreating the black dresses they saw Chanel and, now, her contemporaries making, and championed the style back home as a “must-have.” Designer Nettie Rosenstein, according to Bill Blass, “practically invented the little black dress for Americans.” By the mid-1930s, “the little black dress” had become a turn of phrase in advertising, with department stores trumpeting it as the piece of clothing a modern woman “can’t live without.” As the years ticked on, the idea that