The little black dress, also known as the L.B.D. is best known for its titillating color. A little black dress can be any style and can be made out of any fabric, but what the dress always radiates is confidence and style. It is a classic. Some would even say iconic. But the little black dress has a complicated history.

Before it was the classic dress we all know and many still love today, the L.B.D. was a dress mostly worn by working-class shopgirls and domestics. It wasn’t until the 1920s, when a black Chanel dress was featured in Vogue magazine, that the dress started to become a staple in women’s wardrobes. The little black dress had made a jump from shabby to chic! But for Monica Morales-Garcia that history seemed incomplete.

Monica had worn little black dresses while working at a luxury department store, and knew that many people still had to wear the L.B.D. as a uniform today. So, what did it mean that retail workers still had to wear little black dresses today even after it made its transition so long ago?

In the Spring of 2018, Monica got into graduate school, only two weeks after quitting Bloomingdale’s. It was during this time in graduate school that Monica began to research the origins of the little black dress to answer, how had so much changed, yet so much had stayed the same?

In this episode, Monica speaks with a former co-worker, Natalie Garcia, about their experiences wearing the L.B.D. And with the help of Dr. Traci Parker, Associate Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and author of Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement: Workers, Consumers, and Civil Rights. Monica walks us through the decline of an industry and the rise of a garment.

Featured illustration by Monica Morales-Garcia. 

Related posts:

4 thoughts on “The Little Black Dress: A Hidden History

  1. The little black dress or LBD was never the name for something akin to a uniform. In 20th century fashion parlance, it meant a black occasion dress. Vogue and other fashion mags referred to the LBD as something a woman needed at least one of ready at any time, always for evening occasions. It could be considered a cocktail dress or other similarly-styled frock that, when in doubt, a woman could throw on and accessorize at will. One didn’t refer to a black dress they wore for bereavement or any other occasion as an LBD.

    Black dresses worn for domestic work or department store sales? Those are simply uniforms—not LBDs.

    1. There are clearly stylistic differences between the shopgirl’s black uniform and the LBD. But what is important here, historically, is that the wealthy marketing of the LBD relied on a visual landscape that including young workers in black dresses. It IS relevant (so is mourning dress and the protest clothing of women’s rights activists).

  2. I work at Nordstrom as a Sales Associate in Austin, Texas. This story did not resonate with me at all. I go to work and fully enjoy the people I work with and love working with women to help them feel good about themselves. There have only been a handful of occasions when a client has been disrespectful to one of us. Rather than take it personally, most of us laugh it off and feel sorry for that person and wonder if there is something going on in their life to make them be that way. We have empathy give them the benefit of the doubt, rather than take it that we are subjugated in our work, there to be servants or if there is some kind of raciest agenda. For the most part, our clients are nice, fun and engaging and our employees are professional and regarded as experts in their field.

    I am a Latina and work with all ethnicities, age groups, sexes and sexual orientations. In fact, that is part of the reason I love the job, is to be around so many different kinds of people. We don’t really have a formal dress code; just be professional. I love seeing how my fellow team members style their outfits. There are no LBD’s here – that would be way too boring!

  3. This is my first time responding to anything — ever — but felt compelled by this article about the Little Black Dress. The fact is that whatever you do in life it’s the way you feel about yourself that dictates your attitude towards your working conditions. I worked retail for many years stuffing women into clothes that didn’t fit them, worked in horrible Chinese factories making products with soot covering my face and clothes for 25 years and my sister runs estate sales and cleans out hoarder homes to make a living and never have we EVER said “This is beneath me.” We are making a living. Period. This article was an insult to all those working people who do dirty jobs and have pride in what they do. If you want to make it mean something that you are asked to wear a black dress to work … PLEASE! So you are above all the uniformed people out there? Flight attendants, pilots, waitresses, etc., etc.? It felt incredibly “privileged” to me, which is something since this woman is Latino. If you want to go back in history for everything that you’re unhappy about, I’m sure you’ll find some bit of evidence that you’re right. But is that the way you want to live? Get up every morning, do the work and stop trying to find ways that society is treating you badly. If you don’t like it … change jobs. Better yet, start your own company … and see how easy that is. NPR, do a little better job of finding the right stories to tell.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.