The Politics of the Little Black Dress

by Nav

Maybe it’s just my complete and utter ‘you could fit what I know in a tweet’ ignorance of fashion, but it’s a world that has always seemed very weird to me. For example, the way the cut and shape of most clothing seems designed to highlight and flatter the bodies of women who are a size 2 or 4, when most women are a size 12 or 14, is very odd to me – as if the whole world of fashion isn’t so much about aesthetics as it is a distorted version of aspiration. Clothes don’t complement one’s body as much as use visual trickery to make it appear it is more like someone else’s.

Yet fashion’s implied, subtle assertion of norms obviously plays itself out in relation to race too. You know, ‘neutral make-up’, ‘flesh tones’ etc. There’s always a suggestion of a ‘normal’ wearer – and occasionally, like in this awful Nivea ad, the troubling assumptions in the discourse of ‘looking your best’ trickle out.

Except for the ubiquitous, every-woman’s-gotta’-have-one little black dress, right? The LBD – that’s totally universal… Isn’t it?

The little black dress is universal because of its blankness, its instant formality, its invocation of black-tie black-white contrasts. That’s what’s formal about it, right? Black cloth against white cloth… black cloth against white skin?

Here’s what I’m asserting, though I know I could be totally wrong: the LBD is so ‘universal’ because of the contrast of light and dark it evokes – and that contrast is in part about skin tone. But – and this is where I’ll get myself into trouble – that juxtaposition is different for dark-skinned women. That’s not to say, of course, that dark-skinned women don’t look as good in an LBD as light-skinned women. It’s that ‘what looks good’ and ‘what is appropriate’¬† is culturally specific, and that the ‘universality’ of the LBD actually is based on a set of aesthetic assumptions that assume white skin.

Let’s think of things this way. Fashion is generally based on two basic aspects: ~universal things like colour, shape, pattern, texture; and specifics like the implementation of colour, contrast, texture etc. If fashion is a language, then all of it has words, grammar, syntax, but each expression is dependent on and specific to a cultural context.

Sure, you, dark-skinned woman, look fantastic in an LBD. But if we generally accept that contrast is something universal – but the colours that constitute contrast are not – then why is the ‘universal’ dress of dark-skinned women not white? Or yellow? Who’s to say that, depending on your skin tone, one might not look better in a light, rather than black dress?

There’s a lot you could say to argue against this: that a ‘uniform’ for formal events is precisely what makes them formal; or that it isn’t contrast at all that makes the LBD, but is instead, its blankness, its colourlessness; or that the contrast I’m talking about is still present and still works, regardless of skin tone, since no-one’s skin is actually black. You could, uh, also argue straight cis men should never ever even gesture toward aesthetic evaluations of women’s clothing or bodies. Hey, that’s what comment sections are for.

But even if I’m off in this little rumination on the LBD, the question is this, and it extends to hairstyles, makeup, fabric and cut: if we’re all different, and we all relate to culture and tradition in different ways, should any one aesthetic choice be considered universal – when it seems like almost nothing is?

This post is part of the Ethnic Aisle, an blog that aggregates thoughts on race and ethnicity in Toronto and the GTA.

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