The Little Black Dress uncovered

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From broken bones to new beginnings

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Screen icons Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn wore them and modern day stars Helena Bonham Carter and Cheryl Cole each wore one last week at the BAFTAs and the BRITs. Every woman has one – an LBD, or little black dress.

‘The little back dress is one of the hardest-working garments in our wardrobes,’ says Alison J Carter, senior keeper of art and design at Hampshire Museums Service and curator of a new exhibition about LBDs at Portsmouth’s City Museum.

‘Nowadays, it’s a go anywhere, do anything dress. You’d pack one whether you were dashing off for a quick overnight business trip or taking a beach holiday. You can dress it up or down with accessories to suit any occasion. Anyone, of any age, shape and skin colour, looks good in an LBD.’

By the 18th century, black was an everyday, serviceable dress colour worn by mistresses and servants alike.

Spending much of her reign as a widow, Queen Victoria is often credited with popularising black.

But it was Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel who, in 1926, conceived of the LBD as we know it today – in essence, a sleeveless black shift dress, cut to the knee. There is a Chanel design on display in the exhibition, which opened on Monday and also features a Balenciaga among 50 dresses.

A Christian Dior dress called Black Swan is one of the most topical pieces on display, following the multi-award-winning film of the same name earlier this year.

But probably the most famous film for LBDs is Breakfast At Tiffany’s, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year and is commemorated in the exhibition.

There are LBD references throughout popular culture, from the cinema to the music industry, and it’s all on show at the City Museum.

Celebrating a century of iconic and everyday LBDs, the exhibition includes dresses from the end of the Victorian era, through the 1980s (when pop star Kim Wilde wore hers with trainers), right through to the present day.

In total there are 150 items in the display, including clothing, accessories and lingerie.

The dresses themselves show a variety of cuts, construction, materials and embellishment. And the LBD rules are not hard and fast.

‘Although the archetypal LBD is figure-hugging and sleeveless, they don’t have to be “little” at all. They could be full-length and/or long-sleeved,’ explains Alison.

It has become fashionable to wear vintage dresses and Alison says that the 1950s was one of the most popular eras for the LBD.

Before that, in the late 1940s – a period of wartime rationing - people bought patterns rather than dresses and made them at home, sometimes even from blackout material or by dying any leftover fabrics. To save waste, the longer styles from the late 1930s, were cut to the knee again, so that the excess material could be used elsewhere.

Though most often pictured in a white dress, screen icon Marilyn Monroe had an LBD which features in this exhibition. Also on display are dresses designed by WAG Alex Gerrard, wife of Liverpool footballer Steven Gerrard, and one worn by Paula Riches, the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth.

Alongside historic and designer dresses are the LBDs of Portsmouth women, who have contributed special outfits to the display and shared their stories.

‘Some of our models wore their grandmothers’ LBDs and they looked just as good today,’ says Alison.

The little black dress is certainly one of the most enduring fashion staples.

Just like their grandmothers, women and girls today all own a little black dress. The difference is that nowadays they tend to have more than one.

Alison concludes: ‘Of all the dresses and all the stories, I haven’t come across anyone yet who has said “I don’t have one”.’

The Little Black Dress exhibition at Portsmouth City Museum in Museum Road is open daily from 10am to 5pm until Sunday, June 5. Entry is free.