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There's a great scene in Gone With The Wind where a recently widowed Scarlett O'Hara flings herself on her bed, sobbing. Her mother runs to comfort her. Scarlett sits up and says, "I know you'll think I'm awful, but I just can't bear going around in black."
She didn't need to worry. Black dresses have never stopped anyone from getting men—especially not beautifully dimpled sociopaths like Scarlett.
We often date the black dress's sex appeal to Coco Chanel's LBD, which was popularized circa 1926. However, the actual sex appeal of the black dress goes back even further, and relates to the very mourning tradition that upset Scarlett. Mourning wear, up until the early 1900s, was typically worn by widows for two years following the death of their husbands. The idea was that dressing in black showed "nun-like simplicity," according to an 1868 edition of Harper's Bazaar.
But, wow, that is not the effect the black dresses prescribed for mourning actually had. Wearing a black dress might have seemed sedate and certainly showed that you were a respectable woman, however, it also advertised two very important things: 1) that you were sexually experienced and 2) that you were currently available because your husband was dead.
Now, look, a lot of women were probably wearing mourning attire because they were legitimately distraught their husbands had died. Women weren't all Scarlett O'Hara types; Queen Victoria certainly did not wear mourning garb for the rest of her life because she thought she looked sexy in it. But for many women in the 19th century, being widowed at a young age meant that they were in a unique position where their chastity was no longer being closely guarded by their parents or their husbands. And they were still able to interact in polite society.
No wonder Coco Chanel, an independent woman who had already had a few lovers by the time she popularized the black dress, loved that color. She also loved dressing up in traditional widow wear, as you can tell by her outfit from the Bal du Second Empire in 1934. Red, or pink, or any number of other colors might have been more eye catching and overtly sexy, but black was a color that epitomized not simply men who had died, but women who had lived.
Put simply, if you were a man who was looking for a woman who was neither a prostitute nor a virgin in the mid-1800s, then you'd want to turn your attention to a woman in a black dress. No wonder Robert de Valcourt wrote in 1855, "Black is very becoming, and young widows, fair, plump, and smiling, with their roguish eyes sparkling under their black veils are very seducing."
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an absolutely fantastic exhibit called "Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire" going until February 1st, that delves nicely into the allure of the black dress. Jessica Regan, assistant curator, explains, "The veiled widow could elicit sympathy as well as predatory male advances."
Those male advances weren't necessarily unwanted, though. A line at the exhibit from D.L. Colesworth states, "When we see young ladies persist in wearing sable [during mourning] we are reminded of the reply a young widow made to her mother: 'Don't you see,' said she, 'it saves me the expense of advertising for a husband.'"
Damn. Photo: Getty Images
The fact that she was wearing black, as opposed to some of the more over-the-top gowns of the period, meant that she stood out. The focus was likely on her, and not her dress's many frills and trimmings. Chanel once noted that, "Scheherazade is easy, a little black dress is hard."
Jessica Regan goes on to add that, "As a woman of sexual experience without marital constraints, [a woman in a black dress] was often imagined as a potential threat to the social order." Women in black mourning attire were, correctly, seen as women who had a past. They'd had sex! And now they were independent and would possibly like to have sex again.
Those connotations seemed to extend to just about any woman who wore black. In the Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence—which though published in 1920 was set in 1871—a horrified socialite describes the free-spirited Ellen Olenska by saying, "What can you expect of a girl who was allowed to wear black satin to her coming out ball?" A coming out ball was the time when a young lady was supposed to be presented to male society for the first time, so wearing black to it would have been especially scandalous.
Likewise, at the ball in Anna Karenina where adulterous Anna first enchants Count Vronsky, she opts to wear a black dress rather than a demure violet one. Implying she's sexual! She's available! Except she's not really—Anna is married, and not to spoil the book for you, but there end up being a lot of problems. The black dress, though, endures, and Jacqueline Durran, who designed the costumes for the 2012 film adaptation, remarks, "It is one of the most famous costumes in literature."
It wasn't just literary women who memorably scandalized when they donned black. John Singer Sargent's career was essentially destroyed by the outrage that ensued when he displayed the Portrait of Madame X in 1884.The painting depicted Amélie Gautreau standing in a black evening gown, her chin lifted proudly, with one strap slipping down.
Nudes were pretty commonplace at that time, but people were shocked by the erotic nature of this picture, so much so that Singer Sargent repainted it with both straps of the gown firmly in place. If her dress had been white (or red, or blue, or any other color, not just the strangely patriotic spectrum that seemingly came to mind), people might not have immediately assumed that her strap had slipped because she'd just come from a tryst with her lover.
But it was black, so she'd totally probably been trysting.
These days, a woman having had sexual experience and still interacting in polite society is pretty far from shocking. If a woman in a black evening dress goes to a party with a strap slipping off her shoulder, we might assume that she's been having sex in the other room, but we just wouldn't care that much.
That said, you still won't see black dresses worn to many debutante balls or weddings, and it caused quite a scandal when Princess Diana (whose uncle proudly claimed was a "bona fide virgin" on her wedding day) wore one. That may very well be because, while we no longer need to have a dead husband to be independent and sexually experienced, on some level we still assume that women who wear black have led colorful lives.