Does the little black dress evoke instant memories of allure, of cocktail parties, loud music, dating, drinking? Perhaps a coming of age outfit adorned with pearls, black pumps? Such was my experience in the 1950s.

 

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So I found myself among generations of women, all abuzz, leaning into the slight incline toward the  entrance of the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis. Word had drawn us to the exhibit, Little Black Dress: From Mourning to Night. Over sixty glass-enclosed mannequins exhibited this global phenomenon that seized the imaginations and dressmakers of upper class women from the mid-nineteenth century to the 200s.

To the widowed Queen Victoria, in 1861, do we attribute the protocol of mourning attire for women. For the next forty years she wore black, with dressmakers modifying her voluminous gowns, in keeping with the prevailing styles. Her example influenced generations of widows in many parts of the world, to their great expense.

In 1926, however, a reversal occurred with the French Coco Chanel’s design of the little black dress in jersey (then, the fabric used in men’s underwear), loose fitting and calf-length; it publication in Vogue catapulted it into the cocktail world and other soirees. Subsequent designers on both continents continued to tweak this phenomenon as depicted on the blank-faced mannequins in this exhibit.

However before I left the final gallery, the patriarchy with its control roiled through me. Big money, then and now, sets fashion trends for women, compelling many to buy seasonal wardrobes that afford them identity, status, and a place in man’s society. It’s as if couturiers, of whatever gender, have an unconscious imperative to distract women from their true power lest they usurp the status quo.

Never have I found the true-woman spirit in the pages of  Vogue or Elle. She needs no adornment.

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