After my discovery of its Quilt Art exhibition, I returned to the Mona Bismarck American Centre for Art and Culture where is scheduled, at the present, a glamorous display dedicated to the little black dress. The centre welcomes the SCAD Museum’s Little Black Dress curated by Vogue editor André Leon Talley and that highlights about fifty pieces illustrating the various identities of the not so trivial LBD.
It seems that all has been said and written about the little black dress, it has become a common subject for fashion magazines: ‘finding the perfect LBD’, “all we need is a little black dress’,…This exhibition, however, puts the spotlight on a surprisingly innovative theme as no major exhibition has ever focused on this key piece. André Leon Talley shows the versatility and social significance (from a glamorous point of view!) of the little black dress through the 20th and 21st centuries. The displayed garments were designed by luxury houses and most belong to A-list personalities: the leaflet we are given at the entrance specifies that this or that dress was worn by Rihanna or is the property of Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, for example. This creates an appealing atmosphere founded on the concept of celebrity-wear; a feel wanted by the curator who surely knows much about dressing up for chic events. And he surely knows the power of the little black dress…
Mona Bismarck’s town house stands as the perfect location for the exhibition with its splendid salons adorned with exquisite wall paintings and gold woodwork. The mannequins mimic guests at a party and naturally take place in groups or individually, standing or seating, against dramatic red panels: a red specifically chosen by André Leon Talley and that, I must say, perfectly emphasises the black garments.
Surprisingly, the eldest artefact within the exhibition is a statuesque Mariano Fortuny ‘Delphos’ dress, from 1907. It prefigures Gabrielle Chanel’s 1926 black ‘Ford’ dress (as described by the American Vogue) often observed as the milestone of the little black dress era. From mourning outfit, the black dress turns into a democratized and timeless wardrobe staple.
There is no chronological nor thematic arrangement; the garments freely take place within three rooms although it is tangible that the curator has established dialogues between the different pieces: contrasting effects, complementary aesthetics…In the first room, for example, a Prada 2012 sheath dress is confronted to an eccentric 2012 Marc Jacobs creation (completed by a Stephen Jones hat) and a Comme des Garçons lace shirt dress for men, worn by Marc Jacobs himself. The display is therefore not only an excuse for looking at beautiful dresses, but also tells the story of the evolution of creation and society that, today, also enables, men to wear dresses.
Still in the first room, a Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel dress is presented, framed like a painting: it epitomizes the foundation of the exhibition. This very simple 2006 dress belonged to Anna Wintour and inspired André Leon Talley for the making of this exposition. The fact that it is a Chanel dress cannot be innocent…It incarnates the historical milestone of the little black dress while this particular model epitomizes the mere elegance of the iconic garment. It is the simplest piece of the exhibition but featured within its protecting frame, it becomes the most precious and charming artefact of the display.
Most designs are contemporary but a few historical garments question the younger generation: do you need frills and flounces when the cut is perfect? Elaborate lace with a stunning sensual back décolletage? Sheer effects against statuesque lines? The display seem to ask how can any piece be more contemporary than the ‘Delphos’ dress? Why go overtly sexy when a 1977 Madame Grès cape dress ingeniously opposes a monastic front with a surprising plunging back?
The third and last room displays the most spectacular pieces: seated and standing mannequins seem to be chatting during a ball, a theatrical mise-en-scène that bursts with glamour and invites visitors in what could be an ideal Vogue photo-spread. Within this space, stands out, as an intruder, a fabulous Oscar de la Renta gown whose skirt is a cascade of red flounces that bravely contrasts and highlights the fervour of the surrounding black.
This exhibition unquestionably covers the entire spectrum of elegance and feminine style via the black dress: from sexy to athletic, from simple to enchanting, from provocative to chaste…We may observe the diversity of cuts, nuances of textures (much helped by the brilliant lighted flooring that enable a close examination of details) and adornments that give the little black dress, multiple narratives.
Maybe does the exhibition lacks a little contextualisation, labels, panels…that would have accompanied the story told by the dresses themselves. Items that would have given the display a little more strength and depth; without this accompanying material, it however stands as a beautiful and seductive presentation that feeds our appetite for glamour.
The exhibition is on until the 22nd September.
You can find the exhibition’s catalogue which I flicked through at the end of my visit and that does bring a further questioning on the subject. It is a beautiful book:
Leon Talley, André. Little Black Dress. New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2013.
The king of vintage in Paris who opened a shop specifically dedicated to the little black dress:
Ludot, Didier. The Little Black Dress. Paris: Assouline, 2001.
De la Haye, Amy. Chanel: Couture and Industry. London: V&A Publishing, 2012.
Sanchez Hernandez, Isabel. The Little Black Dress. London: A&C Black Publishers Ltd, 2010.