The Politics of the Little Black Dress

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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15 thoughts on “The Politics of the Little Black Dress

  1. I dunno. I’m pretty sure (and Wikipedia backs me up on this) that the LBD has much more to do with Chanel and Audrey Hepburn, and fashion history than skintone.

    In fact, of all the things I’ve heard to be said about LBD’s, in general it is that pale people should steer clear, so as not to be mistaken for a funeral attendee. Coco was the first proponent of tanning, after all.

    They are said to ubiquitous because of their neutralness and simplicity of cut. Not, in particular how flattering they are, but rather a blank slate quality.

    I’m just… Not sure what you’re getting at. That black people shouldnt wear black? I certainly hope not. That LBDs came out of a white culture? Well i mean yes France is (or was) rather white, but does that discount it’s usefulness? Well, then I guess we better give up the champagne too. A French white guy invented it, don’t you know?

    I mean I don’t in particular think LBD’s are particularily flattering on anyone. Black is tough colour to wear. But it’s kinda not the point of them, I think. A LBD is about finding commonality. It is a type of uniform. It’s neutral.

    • I guess that was my point – it’s less ‘neutral’ than it appears, since its neutrality assumes that you have light (but not too light?) skin.

      Maybe I’m just saying something I ‘shouldn’t’ – that I think that contrast looks nice and that dark-skinned women look better in light colours. Perhaps that’s a mistake. But maybe there’s still some use to question whether neutrality or universality, particularly in regards to aesthetics, are concepts that ‘exist’ – or if they’re things that actually have a coercive, normative effect.

  2. Well, that is a great question that deserves discussion but I think you are definitely overstating your own opinions on the topic of LBDs.

    I mean, I actually think the darker the skin the more flattering black is. I think both are opinions, not universal fact. Neutrals don’t look particularly good on anyone. That’s why they’re neutrals.
    A better topic within the fashion world would have been the idea of a colour called “nude” or “flesh”. It’s the colour of a barbie doll, if you were wondering. Which, obviously is not even remotely close to the colour of most people’s flesh. Especially not POC. And yet fashion universally accepts it as such. Now there’s a topic for ya.

    • Yeah, you know, you’re probably right. I think perhaps I’m just expressing a reasonable idea, but am doing so using the wrong example.

      I suppose what motivated this are two things: 1) a lingering sense that fashion works in relation to both aspiration and an implied norm; 2) that aspiration will always be culturally loaded. So whenever people talk about neutral or universal things in fashion, I think that there’s probably more going on. The ‘flesh tone’ thing you mentioned is a good example, but I think I’m more interested in the parameters that define ‘what is good': i.e. what is a flattering cut, what are appropriate colours for different times of years. To wit, I wanna know how fashion deals with the idea that the definitions of ‘what looks good’ are always forms of cutlural expression, not universal aesthetic ideals.

      Anyway, thanks for calling me on my shit! :)

  3. I agree with Beth, but to add: leaving aside the colour for a second, the benefit of the LBD, as I understood it, was it’s versatility. It’s like a white blouse or blue jeans in how you can wear them with lots of things. Like wikipedia says, it’s supposed to be “long-lasting, versatile, affordable, accessible to the widest market possible and in a neutral color.” Now it could be a little white dress, or a gray dress, but the idea would be the same.

    There are cultural aspects of this, I believe, namely in how Western cultures perceive the color black in terms of formality. But there are other interesting cultural aspects of this too, such as the shift of black from being a symbolic color of mourning to a general color that could be worn. Other cultural elements is just the commonality of black as a formal color at the time and it’s relationship to other cultural elements such as how formal black became an aspiration color for cloth in the middle ages in Europe. But you need someone with more authority than me to comment on this.
    (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_dye for the formal black section) and the Little Black Dress part of wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_black_dress)

    If you think clothing matters, then the LBD seems to represent progress, in a way, in that it was affordable, attractive and less cumbersome than previous clothing for women. It may not seem that way from our vantage point, but from the turn of the century, it might. Again I would like to hear from someone else whether or not that is true

  4. I was actually thinking about this the other day, from a different perspective. I was out at dinner, and saw a striking black woman wearing an equally striking white suit. And I noted that the white suit, in different variations, is a key outfit that effectively signals, “I’m a grown-up, middle-class black woman.”

    In the real world, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a white woman wear an all-white suit. And if you Google “white women’s suit,” most of the image hits show black or brown models. (There’s a small number of white women, but they’re mostly modeling swimsuits, which is a different business.)

    Here’s a representative picture:

  5. Interesting, Tim.

    Actually, I typed in this search (for “white suit vogue”) and got this: http://images.search.yahoo.com/search/images?_adv_prop=image&fr=greentree_ff1&va=white+suit+vogue

    There is a mix of races in the results, and Katy Perry and Angelia Jolie show up prominently. So does Rhianna and Halle Berry.

    That’s not to deny everything you said, but I have seen white women (and men) wear all white suits, especially linen and in summer. (There’s also winter whites, but no so common.)

    It’s a great look, and if you contrast it with bright or dark colors (or darker skin), it is even more striking and more appealing. It’s also likely that way because we don’t see it often, partially due to the high maintenance costs of such an outfit: it’s a dry cleaner’s dream. :)

  6. I think the main appeal of the LBD is it’s versatility. Black goes with everything – every skin tone, every shoe, every scarf, every accessory. Switch up the accessories and the right LBD can be worn to a wedding one day, and a business meeting the next. Black also has the advantage of being the most optically slimming of the colours.

    Any woman or man can rock the right black dress or suit, but some people can’t wear white unless they’ve spent some time tanning.

  7. Thanks for all the comments, folks! Just to throw this out there: is it significant in any way that plain black is not considered an ‘acceptable’ colour (whatever that means) in many countries across the world – i.e. India, which is about the only other place I have experience with. Part of that is practical – no sane person wears black in that kinda’ heat.

    But is it that the cultural valuation of the LBD as neutral canvas for other things – scarves, accessories, brooches etc. – is itself culturally specific. It’s just, now that I think about it, no-one would ever wear a totally plain sari to a formal occasion. That would seem… odd. So I’m wondering if there’s anything to that.

  8. I’ve always thought of the LBD as just a female version of the standard of black-tie dress. I suspect your arguments all hold for black-tie wear in general. One thing about the colour in formal dress: there’s a gender thing going on here, too. I think it’s probably significant that men wear exclusively black as an option in formal wear, whereas women have many more colour options (see: red carpet line-ups at the Oscars). I suspect the LBD might on some level be an attempt to approach a more “formal” standard, one that is necessarily male.

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