New Edinburgh exhibition to explore the phenomenon of the little black dress

Visitors to the exhibition will discover a century of fashion in a series of themed, immersive displays

A new exhibition coming to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh will explore that staple of every fashionista’s wardrobe – the inimitable little black dress.

From design classics to cutting-edge catwalk creations, Beyond the Little Black Dress (1 July to 29 October 2023) will bring together more than 60 striking looks from collections and designers around the world. 

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The exhibition will explore how its complexities have made the little black dress simultaneously expressive of piety and perversion, respect and rebellion; from the well-mannered cocktail attire of the early 20th century to the leather and latex worn by members of punk and fetish subcultures.

An exhibition exploring the success of the little black dress over almost a century is to open in Edinburgh next year.

It will open with a simple, short black dress designed by Coco Chanel in 1926. Considered radically modern, it disregarded convention entirely in both the stark design and sombre shade, that had traditionally been associated with mourning.

At the time it was hailed by US Vogue as “the frock that all the world will wear”. The ‘little black dress’ became a wardrobe staple, a symbol of femininity and a byword for chic, with each new silhouette capturing the spirit of its time.

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Visitors to the exhibition, which is sponsored by Baillie Gifford Investment Managers, will discover a century of fashion in a series of themed, immersive displays. Iconic early pieces by Yves Saint Laurent, Dior and Jean Muir will be juxtaposed with recent looks by ground-breaking contemporary designers and brands like Gareth Pugh, Simone Rocha and Off-White.

Areas of the exhibition will be dedicated to highlighting Black British designers whose work explores both Blackness in terms of identity, and the role the colour black plays in crafting a futuristic, sci-fi aesthetic.

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Elsewhere, the exhibition considers how perceptions of the colour black differ in a global context, as well as how the intervention of smart technologies are establishing a blueprint for a more sustainable future.

Georgina Ripley, principal curator of modern and contemporary design at National Museums Scotland, said: “Few garments are as iconic as the little black dress, which has often been held up by the fashion industry as the one piece every woman should have in her wardrobe. It has evolved dramatically in the century since its creation.

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“From a simple shift dress which helped democratise women’s fashion to a bold political statement, it has moved through various iterations which reflect changing ideals of beauty and body image.

“Displaying classic couture, avant-garde pieces and garments that make a political statement, this exhibition will explore its enduring success, and ask why, in the fickle and fast-paced fashion world, the little black dress has achieved that rare status of being truly above the fray.”

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Sam Pattman, philanthropy manager at Baillie Gifford, said: “We are delighted that our successful relationship with National Museums Scotland continues with our support for Beyond The Little Black Dress.

“This exciting exhibition takes a fresh look at a timeless classic, examining how it has remained in style for nearly a century and displaying a dazzling selection of garments from those worn by royalty to truly avant-garde creations at the cutting edge of the fashion industry.”

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