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Couture noir
A glorious homage to the LBD

As the holidays descend upon us, black thoughts arise.

No, not a negative reaction to rabid Black Friday shoppers or an aversion to fruitcake, but rather a delighted rejoinder to the question that piques every fashion–minded woman regardless of age or budget: What to wear to the party—or if she’s very lucky—parties?

The answer, always and forever, is: A little black dress.

Coco Chanel first apotheosized this basic garment in the 1920s, lauding it as a blank canvas on which a woman’s personality could emanate unimpeded. It’s been a staple of the fashion zeitgeist ever since, reimagined by each generation’s style icons, from Audrey Hepburn to Edith Piaf to Sarah Jessica Parker. Pulitzer Prize–winning fashion critic Robin Givhan calls it “the perfect fashion cocktail.”

More than just for special occasions, it has become ubiquitous, what Chanel called a “sort of uniform for all modern women of taste.” Famed designer Norma Kamali wrote that LBDs take us not only to parties, but also “to job interviews, weddings and funerals. We experience all of life’s big events in the little black dress.”

It is fitting that this sartorial symbol of refinement has been escalated to high art by one of the greatest stylemakers of modern times. Vogue contributing editor AndrÉ Leon Talley has curated an astonishing exhibit at the SCAD Museum of Art of nothing but LBDs, illustrating the versatility and eternal relevance of the form.

At first, the SCAD trustee meant to fill his gallery space with a historical retrospective of 30 or so dresses. But his figurative closet filled far too quickly with offerings from the current seasons of the world’s most esteemed fashion houses.

“Every time I went to another collection or pre–resort collection of Lanvin or Balenciaga, I kept on adding dresses,” he told international art journal ArtInfo earlier this month.

At one point Talley had over 150 dresses to consider, an overwhelming number that he was finally able pare down to a modest 73. Many were lent by famous friends, like the embroidered Stella McCartney gown worn by Rhianna and Lady Gaga’s floor–length Chantilly lace by Tom Ford.

Talley also found himself fascinated with SCAD graduate Alexis Asplundh’s zip–front neoprene frock. Constructed with a “rule–breaking” fabric, it once would have been more appropriate on a surfboard than the red carpet. But no more.
Thus Talley’s exhibit evolved into a statement about the collapsed boundaries of fashion and the freedom that has poured forth: Asplundh’s rubber dress stands a few mannequins down from the buttery leather Prabal Gurung number that Sarah Jessica Parker rocked at the 2011 Fashion’s Night Out festivities with —*gasp*— white pumps after Labor Day.

No longer is the LBD bound by “one–strand of pearls, church–going correctness,” announced Talley to ArtInfo. “Now it represents freedom, liberation and individuality.”

Also included in the exhibit is the lacy Comme des GarÇons shirtdress worn by Marc Jacobs at this year’s Met Costume Institute Gala—and if an LBD worn by a man doesn’t redefine couture, nothing can.

That’s not to say the classic profiles are eclipsed here: Vintage Chanel, Madame GrÈs and Pierre Cardin stand proud among vintage–influenced Vera Wang and Carolina Herrera. A trio of art deco–inspired Ralph Lauren gowns cluster together as if sharing a secret. Diane Von Furstenberg’s celebrated wrap dresses pose near Prada’s long, lean sheath and a full Oscar de la Renta ballgown.

Perhaps the simplest design of all is the 2006 wool Karl Lagerfeld donated by that indubitable style authority, Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Underscoring the “little” in LBD, the black dress worn by the famously petite Wintour was too small for a mannequin and had to be set off in a frame by itself.

Talley’s LBD exhibit opened Sept. 28 and will remain at SCAD Museum of Art through January 28, when it will be packed up to be recreated for showings in New York and Paris—including the carefully–selected shade of red on the walls and artist Rachel Feinstein’s deconstructed carriage sculpture.

It’s one thing to ogle over haute couture from the legendary fashion houses, it’s quite another to get dressed. Connect asked Savannah stylist, designer and My Style Bass fashion blogger Brooke Atwood to define the LBD for the rest of us.

Echoing Chanel’s sentiment that the wearer creates the style rather than the other way around, Atwood muses that “little black dresses give women the opportunity to be their own stylists.”

“You can dress it up or dress it down, make it yours,” counsels the Mississippi native whose rocker chic aesthetic is attracting attention in style circles far and wide. “The best thing a woman can wear is confidence.”

Atwood made waves with her 2010 SCAD thesis collection and has a new collection this fall. Her own contribution to the LBD canon combines  Über–femininity with vicious badassery: A zippered leather vest meets a tiered chiffon skirt in one provocative statement. It’s an unexpected take that handily represents the complex realities—and wardrobe choices—of the modern woman. “Fierce on top, sweetness on the bottom,” she winks.

Not to saddle fashion with too heavy a social interpretation. After all, we’re all just trying to look good for the party. Whether decked with edgy flourishes or holding clean, classic lines, the LBD in its endless permutations will forever remain in style, assures Atwood.

“If you’re in a little black dress, you’re always doing it right.”