I’m back from our Midwest road trip: Lexington, KY to St. Louis, MO and then Kansas City, MO, and back home again. We drove out for a wedding and although I generally loathe road trips, I quite enjoyed this trip. It was my first visit to both St. Louis and Kansas City. A friend recommended I check out the Missouri History Museum and specifically their exhibit on the history of the Little Black Dress. The exhibit did not disappoint. Did you know that in the Victorian era the color black was relegated to mourning the death of a loved one and a widow could be expected to wear black for a full year round? For more on the history of the little black dress, read on.
The Missouri History Museum and its accompanying park are worth a visit in and of themselves. I just happened to stumble upon good luck that such a captivating exhibit was featured during my visit.
During the Victorian era, everyone was expected to wear black during periods of grief and mourning. There were distinct phases of mourning:
A Full Mourning Gown was pretty hard-core and would look something like this:
Victorian women did not *ef around and were serious about adhering to social customs. After a period of many many months, women could wear a slightly less restrictive mourning dress, such as this:
And during the final phase of the mourning period, women could introduce muted colors, such as gray or mauve, such as in this dress:
Outside of mourning, black was considered an inappropriate color for young women because black was considered powerful and seductive. During the start of the 20th Century, things started to change. By World War I, black was no longer relegated to periods of grieving. The social rules eased. Women began to enter the workforce as maids or factory workers (i.e. seamstresses). Black was considered the color of the urban uniform. Here is a typical work dress of the period:
Black was a good color for the urban woman because it hid dirt and grime more easily. Importantly, World War I also gave rise to the little black dress. With fabric becoming more scarce, hemlines rose. During this same period, Coco Chanel began to popularize the Little Black Dress.
The rest is history, as they say. The Little Black Dress has become a staple in every woman’s closet throughout the decades. Here are some more of my favorite dresses from the exhibit:
I love the idea of a black wedding dress. I have half a mind to go that route myself one day.
And finally, here’s me in my handmade version of the Little Black Dress.
You can read more about that project here.
If you’re in St. Louis, be sure to check out the exhibit!