The Little Black Dress Gets Its Own Show, Thanks to Andre Leon Talley

An installation view of "Little Black Dress" at Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art
(Courtesy Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art)

SAVANNAH, Georgia — In the 1920s, after Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel introduced her version of the little black dress, American Vogue predicted that it would become “a sort of uniform for all modern women of taste.”

American Vogue’s prediction was spot on. Now the numbers of women who rely on the little black dress for a bit of je ne sais quoi have Chanel to thank. Nine decades after the legendary designer catapulted it into mass popularity, the LBD remains a staple in every woman’s wardrobe, and has even become the subject of a new museum exhibition at SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia. The show opened last week and runs through January 27, 2013.

When Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley originally received approval in fall 2011 from the Savannah College of Art and Design president Paula Wallace for “Little Black Dress” – which is housed in Talley’s eponymous gallery space at the school’s newly expanded museum – he planned to present 30 dresses. The exhibition was going to launch in spring 2012, but the curating process proved to be more challenging than he had originally anticipated. “Every time I went to another collection or pre-resort collection of Lanvin or Balenciaga, I kept on adding dresses,” Talley told ARTINFO.

Eventually, the fashion guru found himself with 150 little black dresses from his circle of friends and fashion connections, including a 2006 wool Chanel dress donated to SCAD MOA by Vogue editor Anna Wintour and a neoprene number by 2012 SCAD graduate Alexis Asplundh. “I had to edit it down,” said Talley. “I had to reject! The delay was the process of elimination and editing.”

Proposed special touches also kept Talley indecisive until the last minute. “I had made notes on music for months,” he said. “Classical music, modern music, Gospel music — I was going to have a tape played.” On the day before the September 28 opening, Talley decided, “It’s modern; no music.”

Talley also wanted to incorporate a technique he learned from his former mentor at the Costume Institute, the iconic fashion editor Diana Vreeland, who used to have perfume sprayed through the ventilation system at the Met to create an enticing environment at the fashion exhibitions she curated.

“I was almost going to have someone buy Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, and I was going to go around spraying it for the atmosphere, and then I thought, no that’s fine.” he said. In the end, he decided to forgo fragrance.  

The most difficult part? ”The biggest challenge was to get the right color reds on the walls, which took about months to do,” said Talley.

Finally, he narrowed down his selection to 72 dresses that line the crimson walls of the ALT Gallery. “It’s old school, new school, and ‘it’ school, and today school,” he said of his selection. The LBDs run the gamut, from classics by the legendary houses of Yves Saint LaurentMadame Grès, and Givenchy, to contemporary pieces from names like Mimi Plange (a designer favored by Michelle Obama), Rodarte, and Cushnie et Ochs. A few of the garments also made memorable appearances on celebrities: Whoopi Goldberg’s 2010 Chado Ralph Rucci caftan; a sexy floor-length Tom Ford lace dress that Lady Gaga wore with blue hair while recording with Tony Bennett in 2011; and a duplicate of a revealing Stella McCartney gown worn by Rihanna at the 2011 Costume Institute Gala.

The most striking part of the exhibition and a centerpiece of one of the two rooms was Rachel Feinstein’s “Puritan’s Delight” – a gothic wood sculpture of a carriage flanked by a trio of 2012 Costume Institute Gala ensembles. The Marc Jacobs frock and hat that Feinstein wore to the event was coupled with the controversial see-through lace Comme des Garçons dress that Jacobs sported, while the Prada gown Linda Evangelista was dressed in stood on the opposite side of the platform. Talley had secured the artwork from Feinstein for the show before he had even seen the ensembles at the gala, and together, the display provided the strongest mis-en-scene of the exhibition.

For Talley, the pieces in “Little Black Dress” are a departure from the time before Chanel created the “simple yet elegant sheath, in black crêpe de Chine, with long, narrow sleeves, worn with a string of white pearls” that Justine Picardie described in her biography “Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life.”

“It used to represent restriction, codes, establishment, one-stranded pearls, two strands of pearls, Barbara Bush-respectability, country club membership, church-going correctness,” said Talley of the little black dress. “Now it represents freedom, liberation, and individuality.”

Click on the slideshow to see garments from “Little Black Dress,” on view at the SCAD Museum of Art through January 27, 2013.

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