The many uses of a black dress: Stories from the Australian Dress Register

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Bessie Rouse's black bodice, 1885-86. Collection: Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Photograph: © Alex Kershaw

Black clothing has become a ubiquitous choice for the twentieth century adult. Yet in the nineteenth century black clothing had specific associations and uses. The black garments on the Australian Dress Register show both the versatility of black and how its use in fashion gradually changed during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

Black has many, often contradictory, connotations. Over time it has been a symbol of grief, wickedness, humility, the Devil, seduction, austerity and glamour. It is the dramatic and grown-up opposite to white.

Before synthetic dyes were available blackish fabric was made by dying and re-dying fabric to produce extremely dark tones. This was time consuming and therefore black fabric was expensive. Ironically, the coloured fabric which symbolised austerity was relatively pricey. The destructive nature of the dying process meant that black fabrics were particularly unstable and pre-eighteenth century black dress is rare today.

During the course of the nineteenth century black became especially prominent in the form of menswear and mourning dress. With the industrial revolution and increased urbanisation, black became the dominant colour in urban menswear. Black was also a sensible colour choice, easily disguising the grime of the city and manual labour.

The 1882-1884 morning suit, entered onto the Australian Dress Register by the Grenfell Historical Society, is a classic example of a man’s black formal suit.

The Victorian era gave great significance to the outward display of mourning. Queen Victoria only wore black following the death of her husband in 1861, endorsing lengthy displays of mourning, particularly for widows. Mourning dress was typically of the same cut as contemporary fashions, but made from black lustreless fabric such as crepe. Gradually, as time passed from the bereavement, the woman could wear more luxurious fabrics and accents of lighter tones of grey and lilac.

Black mourning wear could be reused or altered for other purposes. On the Australian Dress Register, Bessie Rouse’s black bodice from 1885-1886 shows signs of alteration and could have been a mourning garment transformed into an elegant evening bodice. In the late nineteenth century black became a daring choice for evening wear and by the early twentieth century intricate, and expensive, mourning practices had begun to wain.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, black and dark colours were often favoured by mature women. There are two examples of such dresses from the early twentieth century on the Register.

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Beaded lace overpiece worn by Mrs Jane Crain, 1902 – 1910. Collection: The Museum of the Riverina

The black dress and beaded lace overpiece worn by Mrs Jane Crain in the early twentieth century, held at the Museum of the Riverina, and Hilda Smith’s black silk satin and lace dress, owned by the Griffith Pioneer Park Museum. The ADR entry for Hilda Smith’s dress quotes The Girls Own Annual of 1909 as stating that ‘black dresses are to be very fashionable.’

Hilda Smith's black silk satin and lace dress, 1908 – 1912. Collection: Griffith Pioneer Park Museum
Hilda Smith's black silk satin and lace dress, 1908 – 1912. Collection: Griffith Pioneer Park Museum

In the early twentieth century the first incarnations of ‘the little black dress’ appeared and following World War I black became a cosmopolitan choice. Coco Chanel was noted for her use of black in the 1920s, and her ‘little black dress
Black became a colour of style for all manner of occasions, for women and men. For example, Miss Mather’s black crepe de chine dress from the 1930s, now in the care of the Manning Valley Historical Society, is an elegant example of black daywear from the 1930s.

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Ladies black crepe de chine dress, 1930 – 1940. Collection: The Manning Valley Historical Society

With all its mixed associations black has become a style staple – at once modern and timeless, sensible and glamorous.

Rosie Cullen-Volunteer, Australian Dress Register
Further reading:

R. Clark; Hatches, matches and dispatches (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1987).

D. Ludot; The little black dress: vintage treasure (Thames and Hudson, London, 2001).

J.R. Harvey; Men in black (University of Chicago Press, 1995).

M. Trudgeon; Black in fashion: morning to night (Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2008).

V. D. Mendes; Black in fashion (V&A Publications, London, 1999).

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