That iconic garment, the Little Black Dress, or 'LBD', was born in the 1920s when Coco Chanel took dreary, black, mourning dress and created a modern, chic classic, known as 'Chanel's Ford'. Like the car, the LBD was an immediate success, appealing and available to women of all social classes.
This exhibition, curated by leading fashion designer Andrew Fionda (of the label Pearce II Fionda) charts the history of the LBD, its changing form, and lasting appeal. Beside exquisite examples of tailoring from the 1920s and 1930s are contemporary interpretations of the classic, including a long dress covered in volcanic eruptions of starched fabric. Such pieces challenge the tradition of beautiful cut, understated decoration and simple design.
Haute couture mixes with high street fashion, with pieces by Giles Deacon, Barbara Hulanicki (Biba), Betty Jackson, John Galliano, Nicole Farhi, and Zandra Rhodes. The dramatic floor-length fishtail dress by Julien MacDonald and worn by Victoria Beckham in his book, That Extra Half Inch, is one of the more attention-grabbing pieces; there are also dresses once worn by Joanna Lumley, Joan Collins and, of course, it being Brighton, drag queen Dave Lynn.
Andrew Fionda takes a more personal approach to the LBD than its obvious association with celebrity figures, exploring its significance in the lives of local women. In a short video, several women tell the tales of their very own LBD: where they got it, where they wore it, how it makes them feel. This is certainly a more imaginative exploration of the wearers of the LBD than simply displaying images of the ubiquitous Audrey Hepburn (don't worry – there is still one to be seen), but I can't say that the story of Kate's 50 pence charity shop bargain – which she altered and is now perfect – is wildly captivating.
'Little Black Dress' will appeal to anyone who has ever looked at a still from Breakfast at Tiffany's with envy, or longed for just a little bit of 'chic' in their life. It re-affirms the LBD as a rare garment that can make any woman look and feel good, one which seems likely to remain a fashion icon in its own right well into the future.
By Ruth Simister
'Little Black Dress' is on at the Brighton & Hove Museum and Gallery until June; there are various related events throughout this period. Free admission.