10 June 2011

Beauty in Black

Have you ever wondered about the history of black and its place in fashion?  Once a colour synonymous with mourning, black is now associated with timelessness, style and class.  When, how and why did it become fashionable? 

The National Museum of Singapore is currently exhibiting "Beauty in Black: Dresses from 1950s-2000s".  Creations by the likes of Balenciaga, Givenchy, Cardin and Lagerfeld and locals Thomas Wee and Benny Ong give a glimpse into the colour black, its versatility and the effect it can create through design, shades & fabric.

Black's initial rise as a fashion colour took place in the 15th century during the reign of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy.  Initially he wore black as part of mourning his murdered father but continued to wear it once the mourning period ended.  Since Burgundy was powerful during Philip's reign, wearing black as fashion spread throughout the European courts.  However, black continued to be largely regarded as a colour representing death and destruction and worn as a sign of mourning and despair.

Fast-forward to 1910 Britain.  To mourn the recent death of King Edward VII, Britain's Society attended the Ascot races completely clad in black.  Then in 1914 following the outbreak of WWI, women adopted the usage of black clothing as a sign of economic constraints and the need to be mobile and productive at work.  Unintentionally, through luxuries and haute couture, the colour black was elevated to a new status, yet through needs and lean times black was also practical and convenient.

In 1926, Vogue published a photo of Coco Chanel's little black dress (LBD).  Calf-length, straight and decorated with a few diagonal lines, the dress was simple and accessible to women of all social classes.  The image of Chanel in a simple LBD with bobbed hair, made the garment synonymous with her and by the end of the 20s, the LBD was a staple garment in every woman's wardrobe.  And so began our love affair with black.

Coco Chanel

Below is a photographic collection of dresses from the exhibition accompanied with some of the Museum's history and description of each dress.

"Here the black is so black that it hits you like a blow. Thick Spanish black, almost velvety, a night without stars, which makes ordinary black seem almost grey."
Harper's Baazar on the work created by Cristobal Balenciaga, 1938

Balenciaga - Early 60s
Lace, satin silk, beads & sequins

This sleeveless satin dress is overlaid in black lace and embroidered with sequins and beads.  The dress is worn with a matador cape lined with black organza.

Described by Dior as the "master of us all", Balenciaga had a reputation of uncompromosing standards in the world of couture.  In his latter life he tended towards heavy fabrics, intricate embroidery as the above dress illustrates and bold materials.  He liked using sombre colours like black and brown.

Theyskens - S/S 2006
Lace and linen

This Victorian inspired dress is made of full black lace decorated with flowers, dragonfly motifs and black tassel-like trimmings.

Olivier Theyskens designed this dress for his last collection with fashion house Rochas.  For him, lace reveals the different textures of black when light descends on it.

Lagerfeld - 1982/83
Silk georgette, sequins and beads
Lagerfeld's halterneck "Guitar Dress" is embellished with vertical rows of white beads.  The 'electric guitar' on the back of the dress was embroidered by Francois Lesage, a master embroiderer for many couture designers.

Incorporating street style into haute couture and blending class with quirky, Lagerfeld is known for imaginative creations.

Givenchy - 1952
This black and metallic green silk dress, typified the 1950s fashion.  A button fronted blouse with wide shoulders and a nipped-in at the waist overskirt is embroidered with flowers and seated musicians using gilt metal strips.

Designer of the most famous LBD worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Givenchy is known for creating wearable couture using luxurious materials and embroideries.

Amies - 1957
Taffeta silk
The nipped-in waist and full skirt is achieved with a built-in corset in order to maintain the shapely figure.  Amies believed that elegant clothes should have a low waistline, hence the above creation.

Hardy Amies, was the dressmaker for Queen Elizabeth II since the 1950s.  His creations were largely classic dresses and tailored suits.

Cardin - 1960s
Wool crepe

This wide necked mini dress is constructed by a series of vertical panels which form curved gores at the hem.  The short hemline was quickly adopted by the youth and was most likely worn with leggings and boots.

Cardin preferred sparse, geometric and hard edged minimalist designs to the figure revealing forms of the 1950s.  Often ahead of his time and an accomplished designer, Cardin was the first couturier to launch the ready-to-wear collection in 1959 and very much embraced science and technology in fashion.

Alaia - 1990
Lycra and rayon
This ensemble consists of a bodysuit and skirt, decorated with seams created by fagotting (a technique by joining two edges of fabric together in decorative openwork effect). 

Azzedine Alaia from Tunisia was renowned for creating pieces based on seaming and stitching normally used in corsetry to achieve the perfect fit and flaunt women's toned body shapes, very much a reflection of the 80's era.

Wee - S/S 2010
Taffeta silk
Whilst simple looking at the front with a boat neckline, the dress surprises with a plunging v-drop back and gentle draping. Secured with a bow, it enhances the silhouette of the dress.

Singaporean fashion designer, Thomas Wee is celebrated for his precise tailoring, which is particularly highlighted in this one-seam cut dress.

Ong - A/W 1987
Taffeta silk

Black & white has always been a successful and eye-catching match.  Positioning the white in the centre and flanking the sides with black, the dress reinforces the slim silhouette of the wearer.  Knotted black buttons and white bow provides a little interest to an otherwise minimalistic dress.

Singaporean-born Benny Ong believes that black is best interpreted when contrasted with white, regardless of how challenging it is to balance B&W on a female torso.

Kawakubo - A/W 2005
Silk, rayon and wool

This two-in-one dress consists of a structured black wool jacket attached to a collared silk dress beneath.  The deconstructed dress opens vertically at the center secured only by two hooks in front while it is cut horizontally at the waist behind and held by a black satin sash.

A most complicated looking garment, it is atypical of the designer who is renown for her unconventional deconstructed black clothing that is usually torn and crumpled.  As Kawakubo once said, "I work in three shades of black".

Whilst there are some magnificently designed black dresses in the world that will far surpass this exhibition, the display essentially explores the relationship between designers & women and our neverending passion for black. 

So then, is black actually a colour?  Black does not emit or reflect light it actually absorbs light.  In the late 17th century scientists expelled black from the colour spectrum once Isaac Newton discovered that colours are created when objects reflect specific colours, while absorbing others. Whilst a contentious subject, there is one thing for sure, black is here to stay and so is the little black dress in whatever future form it will take.

"With one black dress your safe.
With two, you have double-edged security."

The Straits Times, 1965

What do you think?