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Review Urbis Little Black Dress exhibition

The Little Black Dress exhibition at Urbis, Manchester's museum of the city and urban culture, traces the origins of the iconic garment first created by Coco Chanel in 1926, and follows its development up to the present day. The Little Black Dress can be seen as a symbol of the modern era, a potent expression of womens' identity and liberation through changing times.

Black dresses did of course exist before 1926, but they weren't little and certainly weren't about liberation. One of the most famous was Queen Victoria's mourning dress, which she wore from the death of Prince Albert for the rest of her life. It started a fashion for black which lasted throughout her reign and beyond.

In the 'thoroughly modern' 20s, following the trauma of war and the disappearance of the old aristocratic world, a new sensibility emerged. It found its expression when Coco Chanel created the black dress, named the Ford dress.

Coco Chanel's black dress was influenced by the burgeoning movie industry. In the era of silent films with their black and white cinematography, a plain costume with a clear outline was needed so that actresses could express action and emotion through body poses. The black dress was adopted because it worked well on screen, and soon became fashionable.

When the talkies arrived in the early 30s, the extravagant beads and jewellery of the 20s disappeared as they interfered with the sound. This too was copied and became a fashion style of the era.

One of the earliest protagonists of the Little Black Dress was Betty Boop, the first female cartoon character to express herself in a sensual way. Even today, the early Betty Boop films seem mildly shocking as she gyrates in her little black dress, showing garter and cleavage. Later in the 30s new guidelines put a stop to this brief flowering of free expression, a leftover from the liberated 20s. A more straight-laced style, with a longer dress was imposed.

The exhibition continues to track the development of the dress through subsequent decades. In each one, the little black dress makes an iconic appearance in a new and often shocking form: In the 40s, the gravity-defying strapless creation worn by Rita Hayworth in the film Gilda. In the 50s, movie stars such as Diana Dors and Jayne Mansfield expressed a new female voluptuousness, which led into the beatnik and rock'n'roll era.

Audrey Hepburn played a beatnik in Breakfast at Tiffany's and made the black dress all her own, turning the silhouette of her wearing it into the most recognisable symbols of 20th century movies.

In 1963, the image of widowed Jackie Kennedy in black mourning dress with her children was beamed around the world and had a tangible influence on fashion style.

Black seemed to slip into the background during the psychedelic late 60s and day-glo early seventies, but made a shock comeback with the arrival of punk rock, when punkettes work all black, from bin liners to ripped stockings.

In subsequent decades the black dress moved with the times, being used in the context of the 'power dressing' of the 80's, and the 'pick'n'mix' pluralism of the 90s which continues today.

Perhaps the most striking and era-defining recent use of the garment was Liz Hurley's famous appearance in a black dress with a very plunging neckline, proving that, depending on who's inside it, the black dress still has the power to shock.

The final section provides an opportunity to see 30 real black dresses provided especially for the exhibition by some of the leading names in fashion today, many from the north west of England, including Agent Provocateur, Vicky Martin and Vivienne Westwood.

The exhibition notes explain Manchester's key role in the cotton and garment industry, a status that's all but forgotten today.

There are many examples of superb fashion photography, though for me, the photos from the 70s onwards cannot equal those from the 'golden era' of the 20s to the 60s, many of which were shot on medium and large format cameras, with Hollywood-style lighting.

Visitors can see an entire screening of the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's, starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant.

A series of accompanying events continues the theme, and relates it to current developments in the fashion industry.

Little Black Dress will be of great interest to anyone interested in the development of fashion, fashion photography and other media representations, and is great value at only 3.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2006-05-24

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