Fashion Icons and Labels

Black Magic

UPDATED 11/13/2006 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/13/2006 at 01:00 AM EST

It wasn't supposed to last. After all, when Coco Chanel unveiled the little black dress in a 1926 issue of Vogue, critics sneered at everything from its cut to its color, with rival designer Elsa Schiaparelli going so far as to dismiss the design as "widow's weeds." And yet "women immediately started wearing it," says Pamela Golbin, 20th-century curator of the Louvre's Museum of Fashion and Textiles. "The simplicity allowed for copies at every level of the price market, which made it a very democratic dress." In the 80 years since, the little black dress has proved its versatility in incarnations ranging from the sheath to the cocktail dress, but no matter how it's worn, one basic truth remains. "It's something you can always throw on," says Scarlett Johansson, "and feel best-dressed."

Nicknamed "the Ford of Chanel" because its mass appeal rivaled that of the Model T, the first little black dress was made of knee-length crepe de chine.

The First Lady selected this sheath for a White House reception. "Black brings out the best of every woman's silhouette," Golbin says.

Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld says one of the keys to the little black dress's appeal is that "you can accessorize depending on the occasion," as Hepburn did by adding evening gloves and a wide-brimmed hat to her Hubert de Givenchy frock in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The little black dress goes mod, in this creation by Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. "Its interpretations have been able to follow fashion through different times and epochs," Lagerfeld says.

Her first little black dress? "It was Chanel black leather and lace—I wore it to my prom!" recalls Coppola (at a screening for Marie Antoinette).

"Today, the little black dress is like jeans," says Lagerfeld. "It is a wardrobe's essential element."

"Even though it was born in Paris, the little black dress is an international garment," Lagerfeld says. Diana wore this Christina Stambolian take on the classic during a visit to the Serpentine Gallery.

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