October 7, 2011 10:06 pm

Looking black

Fifty years after Audrey Hepburn popularised the little black dress in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, it still comes with new twists

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the film that probably did more than any other to immortalise the little black dress, turns 50 this month. To mark the event, a memoir about the style-setting film has just been published by Rizzoli, which features scripts, film stills and candid, behind the scene shots of the gamine Miss Hepburn in the slender Givenchy cocktail dress that has become an enduring symbol of understated elegance.

Half a century on, however, and the LBD seems as youthful as ever. While it remains the ultimate wardrobe staple, it is being reinvented in increasingly non-traditional ways.

Timothy Long, curator of costumes at Chicago History Museum, says: “Now we have wild, varying opportunities for fashion, so there are differences in what a little black dress is – is it a shift dress? Does it have an empire line or drop waist? Does it have a peplum waist or pleats? Perhaps now the only thing which remains classic is the original idea – that the LBD is easy to wear and for many events.”

Paradoxically, the very classical status of the little black dress means that, to reinvent the wheel every season, designers push their creative boundaries in often unexpected ways. Witness this autumn’s versions of the LBD, perhaps the most extreme yet thanks to lashings of leather and lace. Eye-wateringly tight corset dresses, strong bondage straps and tantalising sheer panels suggest the classic sheath has been whipped into new shape.

Designer Emilio de la Morena says: “This season’s little black dresses were an excuse to go crazy, adding some of my ideas with fabric and ornament in a clever way, such as, tearing the organza and stitching it back together for a raw-edge effect.”

Fabric also plays a large role in Mark Fast’s collection, where the designer mixed merino wool with mohair in his LBD to “create drama and sophistication”. Meanwhile, Fast’s strategically placed holes, as well as Stella McCartney’s sheer panel inserts, make the current LBD notably less restrained. “We are meant to see the skin, which is much more provocative,” says Ruth Runberg, buying director at fashion boutique Browns.

Laura Larbalestier, women’s designer wear buying manager at department store Selfridges, says: “Stella McCartney’s dresses with dots are identifiable, free spirited, modern and fun. They are dresses to wear to please yourself and to go out and have a great time. They are not serious evening dresses, unlike Audrey’s, which were sophisticated, very basic and not fun.”

Actresses Kate Bosworth and Diane Kruger in LBDs

Actresses Kate Bosworth and Diane Kruger in LBDs

Stylist Angie Smith says: “Fashion is having to work harder in general, and so is the LBD. Everything needs to be wearable. Women no longer have an evening wear and day wear section in their wardrobes, it’s a lot more like anything goes, and it’s cool to dress down your evening wear and dress up your casual wear. The LBDs of autumn/winter 2011 would look equally great with biker boots or with killer heels.” Antonio Berardi’s lace dress, for example, works by day and can be vamped up at night.

Exaggerated shapes have redefined the classic silhouette. The cinched-in patent leather waspies at Louis Vuitton create architectural curves, for example, while the fluffed-out hemlines at Alexander McQueen add length. Occasionally, a masculine twist is added. Fast says: “My mesh and leather boyfriend dress, longer at the back, adds a more casual, effortless vibe to the classic look.

Yet, to a certain extent, the little black dress has always been subversive, ever since Chanel put 1920s fashionistas such as the Duchess of Windsor into a colour and fabric usually worn by widows, nuns and maids. So, perhaps it should be no surprise that it continues to reflect the modern woman, whether of the 20s or today. “The LBD remains a fail-safe option for looking chic and pulled together, because women have so much on their plates – in the workplace, at home, with family, travelling – that the LBD is one less thing to think about as it plays so many roles,” says Runberg.

As Kerry Taylor, auctioneer of vintage fashion including the lace LBD worn by Hepburn in How to Steal A Million (1966), says: “The little black dress never stays the same but encapsulates the look and mood of its time, stripping away all of the other things like colour or prints, whether it is the 1930s figure-hugging bias cut, Ossie Clark’s 1970s sexy wraparounds with plunging slits or Lady Gaga’s black rubber this season.”

Breakfast, lunch or dinner, the little black dress always has a place at fashion’s table.

‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s: The Official 50th Anniversary Companion’ by Sarah Gristwood is published by Rizzoli in the US and Canada, $29.95, www.rizzoliusa.com and by Anova Books, £20 in the UK, www.anovabooks.com

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‘The LBD caresses a woman and makes her glamorous’

In one of the opening scenes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn is woken up by her neighbour ringing the doorbell. The item of clothing that takes her from sleepy to soignée in a matter of minutes is, of course, the little black dress, writes Carola Long.

Now the garment’s transformative magic has been harnessed in a capsule range of go-to dresses by vintage guru Didier Ludot for quintessentially French T-shirt label Petit Bateau. The outfits take the instant elegance of the LBD and combine it with the ease and comfort of cotton jersey. There’s no complex co-ordinating or specialist dry cleaning required.

Since 1974, Ludot has specialised in vintage clothing by great 20th-century designers such as Cristóbal Balenciaga, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Yves Saint Laurent.

He has two shops in Paris’s Palais Royal focusing separately on haute couture and ready to wear pieces. In 1999, he opened another shop, La Petite Robe Noire, selling vintage dresses, and since then he has created 13 little black dresses every year in conjunction with designer Felix Farrington.

A model in Petit Bateau's 'Catherine'

Leading fashion figures from the 1960s were the starting point for Ludot’s Petit Bateau range, which is intended for mothers and daughters.

Ludot says: “It was a challenge to make three chic, easy to wear and modern dresses, for a label that is very well known and a symbol of simple garments,” so his solution was to focus on what he calls a “ less is more approach” with “graphic, good-looking shapes”.

There’s “Catherine”, a fitted knee-length dress with long sleeves, a fluted hem and a white Peter Pan collar inspired by Catherine Deneuve (£159 for the adult version, £69.50 for the children’s), “Audrey”, a simple, sleeveless boat neck sheath, and “Twiggy”, an A-line shift with rounded appliquéd pockets. There are also striped boleros that nod to Petit Bateau’s signature Marinière tops for children and adults. All reflect the simplicity of the dresses Ludot considers the most memorable throughout history: Chanel’s Ford dress, all the dresses Hubert de Givenchy created for Audrey Hepburn, Yves Saint Laurent’s Belle de Jour styles for Catherine Deneuve and, more recently, Miuccia Prada’s dresses in the 1990s.

His verdict on the secret of the LBD’s success? “It caresses and protects a woman, and makes her glamorous. It makes her sure of herself.” After all, it’s been tried and tested over almost a century.

The collection is previewing at Didier Ludot’s boutique, La Petite Robe Noire, and goes on sale internationally from December 5 at Petit Bateau stores, www.petit-bateau.co.uk

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