The black dress may be a when-in-doubt wardrobe staple, but its effect on fashion has been far from basic, as Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT, demonstrates in her latest book, “The Black Dress” (Harper Design), out this week. Her insightful essay, accompanied by gorgeous images and a selection of quotes from a surprisingly wide range of sources (Christian Dior, Thomas Pynchon, the film “Reservoir Dogs”), takes a refreshingly un-sober look at the elusive classic. We asked her why we’ll always be back in black.
What aspect of the black dress sparked your interest in creating this book?
I think the black dress is really the most powerful, sexy, and mysterious style in fashion. More than any other color, black has amazing layers of meaning—that really attracted me. And I thought there was more to be said than the clichés about the little black dress. I think the reason why we all love the little black dress is because it’s such an intense phenomenon.
Can you elaborate on some of the varieties of black dresses?
You’ve got elegant black—you can imagine someone in a Ralph Rucci evening dress or a Lanvin cocktail dress. And then you have this kind of hipster, avant-garde artistic black, sort of Comme des Garçons or Yohji. You’ve got gothic black, like Rick Owens or Boudicca. Different designers push the sexual aspect, or the kind of wicked aspect, or the elegant aspect, or the hipster aspect, or the New York downtown feeling. So there’s a lot of choice for any individual woman when she’s getting a black dress.
How did the black dress change fashion?
For hundreds of years women were mostly thought of as being the beautiful sex. You could think of them in white dresses or in pink or even in a luscious and somewhat seductive red, but it’s when you got that edgy, powerful, ultra-sexy aspect of black that came into fashion the latter half of the twentieth century that it really was transformed for women.
What’s the future of the black dress?
I think designers are doing more and more with new textile technologies. The quality, the texture, and the surface of how the textile feels, and also how the light reflects off it—I think that’s a new area where designers are going to continue to explore. You can get a lot of new feelings out of black.