THE LITTLE BLACK DRESS
By Amy Holman Edelman
Simon & Schuster
160 pp., $30
Women owe a great debt of gratitude to the little black dress. With or without pearls, it gets us through business meetings and on to holiday parties. It forgives us for all the Halloween candy we ate last month. It makes us look taller, more sophisticated.
Black wool, black velvet, black velour - it's good to have a closetful of options.
Amy Holman Edelman's "The Little Black Dress" chronicles the history of this indelible fashion icon. And while it's hard to imagine that an entire volume could be devoted to an item of clothing, Edelman's new book delves beneath the surface and renders a fascinating social history.
The text is illustrated with elegant black-and-white photographs featuring most every celebrity who has ever graced a black dress, from Betty Boop to Audrey Hepburn.
Edelman credits Coco Chanel for popularizing the black cocktail dress in 1926. The famous French designer, she says, liberated women from fussy pastel tea dresses and other Victorian froufrou.
"Chanel created the little black dress for the woman of wealth and leisure; mass production enabled copies to reach those who had less. Both the haves and have-nots wanted to wear black."
But as Edelman reminds us, black has been making fashion statements throughout the centuries.
"Black is the color most often chosen to cloak the pious," she writes. "It reflects the humility of a nun's habit and the practical endurance of servants and livery."
And for ages, respectable black has been worn during long periods of mourning.
It also has a flip side, a darker nature. Black can evoke vampires' capes, witches' robes, bleak moods "and, inevitably, a little bit of sin," Edelman notes.
Shocking a conservative public in 1884, the most famous black dress in history was worn by Madame Virginie Gautreau in John Singer Sargent's scandalous "Madame X."
Gautreau, who posed for the portrait in a voluptuous black evening gown, was a married woman of "refined tastes and shadowy reputation" - otherwise known in Paris for her adulterous affairs.
At the time, Edelman notes, this "bad woman in the little black dress almost ruined a painter's career."
Today, the contradictory nature of black - pious and sinful - only adds to its intrigue.
And there's no denying that black can be rebellious in its refusal to compete with pattern and color. Black is cool by itself.
Perhaps for that reason, it dominates the wardrobes of motorcycle gangs, creative types, and other expatriates.
In the movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's," for instance, Audrey Hepburn's free-spirited character made the black cocktail dress an everlasting symbol of New York glamour.
And painter Georgia O'Keeffe, also known for her individualism, wore a simple black dress at a time when other women thought the look was too harsh.
As Edelman points out, O'Keeffe's mentor and husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, was first attracted to the painter "by the distinct nature of her dress."
In the seven decades since its debut, Edelman observes, the black dress has become a "uniform" that "expresses a modern woman's contradictions and celebrates her independence." It announces that she's dressing for herself.
In a season overburdened by decisions - what to buy for Aunt Beth; what to wear to the office Christmas party - the little black dress offers the ease of simplicity.
Or, as I keep telling my husband, you simply can't own too many.
* Cynthia La Ferle is a nationally published columnist and author of an essay collection. She lives in Royal Oak, Mich.