Left: Rogier van der Weyden, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1460. Oil on panel, 14 9 1/16 × 10 5/8 inches. Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art. Right: Detail of John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883–84. Oil on canvas, 82 1/8 × 43 ¼ inches. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

‘Tis that time of year again—when it’s all a mad blur of trying to tidy up loose ends, spread lots of goodwill, take stock, make stock, catch that first snowflake, wrap that last present…And socialize to the extreme. By this I mean night after night of moving from crammed apartments to overflowing bars too far to walk to in uncomfortable shoes. But you’ll do it anyways because the pain reminds you that you’re alive, and besides the cold air feels soooo good after a few hours of merrymaking in a stifling living room. Of course, I’m writing of the “Before Time,” when people had no clue that “2020” would become a dirty word. Back then, holiday parties were an occasion to show my black dresses a good time. Each of them deserved it of course, just like they deserve never to be paired with the word “little” because no matter their size, they will always merit grander adjectives. 

This staple of our wardrobe—so quintessential we often take it for granted—offers an illuminating lens through which to consider how women were perceived—and how they presented themselves—in the past.

Later in her career, Coco Chanel said: “I imposed black; it is still going strong today because black wipes out everything else around.” Chanel was certainly right about the power of this color, though she was by no means the first to harness it in the sartorial realm. In fact, black clothing has had a long and complex life in the west tied to different religious, cultural and political practices, and while I can’t delve into them all, I wanted to share with you some of the ways the black dress has been featured in the history of art from the 15th to the 19th centuries. This staple of our wardrobe—so quintessential we often take it for granted—offers an illuminating lens through which to consider how women were perceived—and how they presented themselves—in the past.  

Philip the Good wearing black dress and pointy shoes
Rogier van der Weyden, Jean Wauquelin (or Simon Nockart) Presents the Book to Philip the Good. Dedication page of the Chroniques de Hainaut, 1448. Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique.

When his father was murdered in 1419, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, took to wearing black nearly exclusively, though he hardly stuck to wearing unassuming outfits. On the contrary, Philip’s black gowns were luxurious, often made of rich velvet, and supplemented by equally sumptuous accessories such as poulaines—exceedingly narrow, pointy shoes that I’ve always suspected would require a Sarah Jessica Parker-level of expertise to wear without causing self-harm. This allowed Philip to cultivate a striking look that denoted not only grief and enduring devotion to his father, but also authority and wealth. In the sea of colorful fashions that the Burgundian court had favored till then, Philip’s adoption of black as his signature color made him conspicuous and made it clear who was in charge. Of course, it wasn’t long before others took to emulating his style. 

History of "little black dress," Portrait of a Lady
Rogier van der Weyden, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1460. Oil on panel, 14 9 1/16 × 10 5/8 inches. Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art.

Black grew increasingly popular among women as well, its darkness appreciated both for its elegance and association with modesty and piety. Artists took full advantage of the aesthetic possibilities of marrying dark colors with pale skin, as revealed for example in the portrait seen here by Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden. The young woman, whose identity remains unknown, is wearing a black v-neck gown with tight-fitting sleeves. The inky color of her dress virtually blends into the background and acts as an arresting foil to her gauzy veil, white skin, and crimson belt. 

There is something remarkably modern, for lack of a better word, about Rogier’s use of this limited color palette and sharp, deceptively simple planar forms, like the folds of the woman’s veil. It all works in concert to make her hazel eyes the image’s central focus; lowered, they avoid the viewer’s gaze, emphasizing her virtue and effectively disempowering her by making her an object to be contemplated. Her fingers, ornamented with rings that indicate her wealth just like the rest of her attire, tell a story too; they don’t handle anything, but rather are laced together, tightly contained in place, and as such, echo the sitter’s lot in life. 

Catherine de Medici wearing a black dress (fashion history)
Left: Portrait of Catherine de’ Medici, copy after François Clouet, c. 1580. Oil on panel, 13 ¼ × 10 inches. Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum. Right: Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Mariana of Austria, c. 1652–53. Oil on canvas, 90 7/8 × 51 1/2 inches. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Dying cloth black might not seem like a big deal to us today, but in the 15th century, it was no easy feat, making the resulting garments an extravagance. The process took several days, and among other steps, involved over dyeing with woad and madder, vegetal dyes that didn’t yield the kind of intense black color produced today. Early in the 16th century, Indian logwood was discovered in Mexico and brought to Spain, where boiling chips from the tree resulted in a much more saturated, complex black color. In the following centuries, this natural resource from the Americas was fervently exploited by Spain and its neighbors to feed the growing demand for costly black clothing, a staple in the 1600s at the Spanish court as well as among Europe’s increasingly prosperous mercantile class. 

Not long after logwood was discovered, Queen Catherine de’ Medici (1519–89), who lost her husband in a gruesome jousting accident—just imagine having eye and brain surgery in 1559 without proper anesthesia or painkillers—became regent of France. Since the country’s laws didn’t allow women to assume the status of full, sole ruler (the way Elizabeth I did in England for instance), Catherine had to be careful in her political maneuvering so as to not be undermined, and her choice of attire was instrumental in this process. Long after the prescribed period of mourning for her husband was over, Catherine continued to wear black to affirm publicly the depth of her Catholic faith, but also the fact that she meant business. To make her serious, powerful figure stand out, the queen surrounded herself with a group of ladies-in-waiting dressed in the latest scintillating fashions, who came to be known as her “flying squadron.”  

When considering the power of black dresses from a historical point of view, it’s hard not to think about Berthe Morisot (1841–95), French Impressionist painter and sister-in-law of fellow artist Edouard Manet. The two influenced each other’s works in different ways and shared a close relationship, which comes across in their paintings, including the series of portraits Manet made of Morisot dressed in black between 1872–1874. Stylistically, these images reveal Manet’s fascination with Spanish painting from the 17th century, as well as his commitment to creating a new way of painting that included the use of bold, abbreviated brushwork that was often described as “dirty” by contemporary critics. 

Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (black dress fashion)
Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, 1872. Oil on canvas, 21 7/8 × 15 7/8 inches. Paris, musée d’Orsay.

There is also something very personal about the way Manet captures Morisot in these images, where her black attire ranges from a touch seductive to quite demure. Among my favorites is the portrait shown here, where Morisot is dressed in mourning for her father and holds violets (the same year, Manet painted a bouquet of these flowers and gifted it to her). Her gaze is so intense, the tendrils of her hair and the ribbons of her hat charged with so much energy, that it’s always seemed to me an image of a woman touched by death but bubbling with life. While black garments can sometimes be used as a means of effacement both in reality and in art, in Manet’s images of his sister-in-law, they act more like a device for shining a spotlight on her character. 

Berthe-Morisot-daughter-black-dresses-fashion-history
Left: Berthe Morisot, On the Balcony, 1872. Oil on canvas, 23 5/8 × 19 11/16 inches. Private Collection. Right: Berthe Morisot photographed by Charles Reutlinger, 1875.

Morisot herself frequently painted women in black in her own compositions, conveying a range of effects and meanings. In On the Balcony, a black walking dress, form-fitting and with amply ruffled bustle, serves as a symbol of adulthood and bourgeois propriety. The woman is none other than Morisot’s sister Yves Gobillard, accompanied by her daughter who is a picture of innocence in her white pinafore. The pair are shown in a fashionable suburb, observing Paris from a balcony, sequestered from the (active) masculine realm of the city. Morisot’s depiction of her sister’s dress reveals her keen interest in contemporary fashion, which also comes across in a photo of the artist by Charles Reutlinger in which she wears a black evening dress (the same dress appears worn by a model in Morisot’s painting Before the Theater)

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) black dress fashion
John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883–84. Oil on canvas, 82 1/8 × 43 ¼ inches. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In fact, by the late 19th century, black for evening gowns had become the epitome of chic and sensuality, as John Singer Sargent’s Madame X shows. In many ways, this painting is the bar against which I measure all current red-carpet interpretations of the black dress. The sitter was Madame Pierre Gautreau, the wife of a wealthy French banker who was known for her eccentric beauty and individual style long before Holly Golightly was eating breakfast at Tiffany’s. Sargent originally painted her risqué gown with its jeweled strap slipping from her shoulder, and that detail, combined with Madame Gautreau’s self-assurance and aloofness, resulted in critics ridiculing the painting.

Sargent ended up repositioning the strap and keeping the portrait for himself, ultimately donating it to the Met with its present title (which ironically, has helped make Madame Gautreau all the more famous). Now it’s one of Sargent’s most beloved paintings, and a fabulous reminder of why staying true to yourself should be dogma. As should possessing at least one mind-blowing black dress in which you can write your own history…