Anticipated by Sargeant’s Madame X, invented by Coco Chanel, and adapted infinitely by women across style, class, and some national borders, the little black dress is adored for its versatility as armor, camouflage, or plumage. Even in the art world, where basic black is the vestment of choice, the little black dress retains a special allure. Put it over a full-body tattoo and its wearer still channels Audrey Hepburn, if not Cindy Sherman.
“You can wear it to an art opening if you go as artist or gallerina or collector,” says Rachel Feinstein, the artist who is also a muse for designer Marc Jacobs.
Offering a template on which to act, or not, the little black dress is fashion’s equivalent of the blank canvas. “The shape is very important, the sculptural element using the body as form underneath,” says Feinstein.
Thus the garment gives you “sex appeal without trying to look like you’re sexy on purpose.”
The black dresses now on view at the Savannah College of Art and Design, in a show organized by André Leon Talley, the Vogue contributing editor who is also a writer and, increasingly, a curator, aren’t the type you’d see at art openings. Most are couture—vintage garments from Chanel, Balenciaga, Fortuny, Valentino, and highlights from recent collections by Calvin Klein, Miu Miu, Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang, and Proenza Schouler, among many others.
Also included are several items in neoprene, more commonly used for wetsuits, by Lanvin, Jil Sander, and Cushnie and Ochs, as well as Alexis Asplundh, a recent SCAD graduate showing a zip-front, knee-length dress (above). Talley introduced her to his friend Gloria, Princess of Thurn and Taxis, who ordered a neoprene suit.
“The rules do not apply any more as they used to,” Talley says. “New fabrics are just as elegant as traditional fabrics.” Another 2012 graduate, Victoria Wilmoth, is represented by a satin hourglass evening gown, embedded with gilded plumes.
The hourglass Marc Jacobs dress that Feinstein wore to the Met’s most recent Costume Institute gala is here (above), along with her accessory, an oversize fur hat by Stephen Jones. “It was the biggest black fur fedora you’ve ever seen,” says Talley, “like the hat from Alice in Wonderland. It was like a cloud of mushroom fur around her face. She kept it on the entire dinner.”
Feinstein and her husband, painter John Currin, met Talley a few years ago at a dinner party, when he insulted their outfits. “You both look like you should be working on Wall Street,” he told them, as Feinstein recounts. “We were a little bit offended,” she says. “We gave him a hard time about it, that’s how we became friends.”
Amidst the black dresses, Talley has installed a black enamel carriage with a broken wheel, a 2008 sculpture by Feinstein called Puritan’s Delight. “We needed a focal point,” says Talley. “I’ve learned this from Diana Vreeland,” his mentor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
The collapsed coach adds certain fairy-tale quality to the display. Nearby is a male mannequin—Cinderfella?— in the transparent, lacy Comme des Garçons shirtdress that Marc Jacobs wore to the Costume Institute gala. His accessories are white boxer shorts, black ankle socks, and jeweled Pilgrim shoes from Jacobs’s fall 2012 collection. “It’ a shattering breakthrough, the little black dress being worn by a man,” Talley says. “It’s crashing through boundaries, the rules of black tie.” Does this mean we’ll see more black dresses on men?
“I may wear a black dress one day,” he says.
Why not? It wasn’t so long ago that women weren’t supposed to wear pants.