Black magic that created a new world

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CLASSIC style icon and symbol of emancipation, the little black dress is the subject of a new exhibition featuring its most memorable moments from history and popular culture. Stephanie Smith talks to its curator.

Its story is the story of 20th century woman.

When Coco Chanel created the first little black dress in 1926, she came up with more than a mere fashion garment; her invention reflected and encouraged a whole new world for women, one that embraced practicality and, above all, freedom.

The progress of this ultimate icon of style is charted in an exhibition opening this week at The Civic in Barnsley. Called simply Little Black Dress, it looks at some of the world’s most famous examples of the LBD, from the elegantly simple and classic shift dress that Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) to the infamous, slashed safety-pin Versace dress that Elizabeth Hurley wore to accompany her then boyfriend Hugh Grant to the 1994 premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral.

As well as photographs, there is rare film footage and a selection of historically important and contemporary LBDs to see in the flesh, including Jean Muirs and Mary Quants. The exhibition began its life at the Urbis gallery space in Manchester, devised by curator Pollyanna Clayton-Stamm, inspired by a charity auction in 2006, for which leading designers donated little black dresses.

“It’s been drastically developed for The Civic space, responding to the textile heritage of Yorkshire and the region,” says Pollyanna.

In particular, the legendary Barnsley fashion boutique Pollyanna (no relation) has provided a unique focus for the Yorkshire version. Pollyanna was created in 1967 by Rita Britton and has been hailed as one of the world’s leading stores by the Victorian and Albert Museum, the first to stock cutting edge designers such as Commes des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto. Visitors come from around the world to visit the fashion emporium, which occupies a four-storey Georgian townhouse on Market Hill in Barnsley. Rita has lent items from her own collection including a Jean Muir dress, plus her own designs and contemporary garments from current designers.

“I was already aware of it,” says Pollyanna, the curator, of Pollyanna, the shop. “It’s a bit of a jewel in Yorkshire and known far beyond. What Rita is doing with that store is really exciting and it’s been a real bonus being able to work with her.”

Pollyanna the curator is 36, originally from Sydney, and trained and worked as an artist before turning to exhibition work.

“I don’t come from a fashion background and I can’t say I’ve always been taken with fashion,” she says. But it was the story of Coco Chanel, she who created what we now think of as the little black dress, that captured Pollyanna’s interest, for Chanel transformed the fashionable into the political when she published in American Vogue a picture of a calf-length, simple, straight black dress.

“Her first LBD was called the Ford dress, because they sold as many Ford cars in the same year as her dresses,” says Pollyanna. “I love the industrial comparison, a fashion item that’s craved by women was put on the same par as a car craved by men.” Before this time, black was reserved for widows and mourning, and was considered indecent worn otherwise, so it was a bold move on Chanel’s part.

The exhibition follows the political and social context of fashion’s development, the outside influences that pushed the development of the LBD.

The New York Fashion Network has provided catwalk film footage for each decade. “It’s interesting at a social level to observe the differences in catwalk culture, from the girl next door dancing around in the earlier decades to the 1990s super star models.”

Also featured are 1930s cartoon character Betty Boop, Edith Piaf in the 1940s, and Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love video in the 1980s, described by Pollyanna as “a seminal salute to the little black dress”. Then there’s Jackie Kennedy at JFK’s funeral and Princess Diana at the Serpentine Gallery, stepping out in June 1994, on the night Prince Charles went public about his relationship with Camilla, in perhaps the most fabulous dress of her life, a short, revealing yet fabulously elegant black chiffon number by Christina Stamboulian. The Barnsley exhibition will also feature actual gowns from early advocates of the LBD such as Mary Quant, through to world-renowned contemporary designers, such as Vera Thordardottir, who designs for Lady Gaga.

When it featured Chanel’s first LBD in 1926, Vogue predicted that it would become “a sort of uniform for all women of taste”. In 2011, the appeal of the little black dress is stronger than ever, with no signs of waning. Dressed up or down, it can mean whatever a woman wants it to mean. But Vogue was wrong. The LBD is not a uniform for women; rather it offers them the opportunity to define themselves as individuals.

As Rita Britton says: “It is all about helping people find their own style, not dictating what they should wear.”

• Little Black Dress is at Gallery@, The Civic, Hanson Street, Barnsley, March 31-May 20, Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 10am-4pm. Admission is free and for more information, check out www.barnsleycivic.co.uk or call 01226 327000.