The Big Black Dress

carlsbad09In her witty 2007 book about aging, I Feel Bad about my Neck, Nora Ephron praises older women who wear black.  “Think about it,” she writes.  “Fifty years ago, a woman of a certain age almost never wore black.  Black was for widows.”

Perhaps her generalization carries some weight for the pastel-hued fifties. However, one hundred years before she wrote her book older American women wore a lot of black.  What we might call the “big black dress” was a wardrobe staple for women over fifty.  According to a 1902 article in Ladies Home Journal, “A gown of black silk for an elderly lady is always in good style for either an afternoon, evening, or house gown. One is never at a loss for something to wear when a black silk is among one’s possessions.”

This 1909 photo shows a family grouping in Southern California, where I live.  Most of the women are wearing their big black dresses.

It was Chanel who made the little black dress famous in 1926 and changed the image of black from old to young.  Ever since black clothing has made a statement for youth, from the beatniks, to the Goths, to Project Runway.  Now older women embrace black not only because it makes them look thinner, but also because they hope it makes them look young.

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2 Responses to The Big Black Dress

  1. Alice Fahs says:

    I think it’s quite fascinating that an apparently younger woman in this photograph is dressed in what I think of as the “New Woman” costume: a shirtwaist and skirt, but not the “big black” suit. I wonder if there are photographs of mothers and daughters from the 1910s that would provide some comparison of styles of dress across generations–and whether mothers ever imitated their daughters with the shirtwaist look, seen as very youthful at the time? When did women start imitating their daughters’ dress (in the 1960s, for instance, with jeans), anyway?

  2. americanagefashionco says:

    I have photos of older women in the shirtwaist outfit–in fact I have planned a post on “shirtwaists for all.” Thanks for the inspiration!

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