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Secrets of the Little Black Dress
By Marie-Thérèse M. Norris
French Touch Image Consulting LLC

Spring is here, Ladies, and the dress is back. Sexy, sassy little numbers pranced down Paris runways and right onto the racks of your local clothing stores. Their colors are bright, their patterns are geometric and they are short, short, short to show lots of long, lean leg. If you’re young and have the legs for them – go for it! If not, there is still one dress that every woman, no matter her size, no matter her age, can wear to perfection – the Little Black Dress. I know, I know, I can hear you all groaning out there, but bear with me and I will reveal some of the secrets of the LBD that might just make you re-think this classic essential of the well-dressed woman’s wardrobe.

No discussion of the Little Black Dress can begin without at least a quick genuflection in the direction of the tiny Frenchwoman who invented it, Gabrielle Chanel (1883-1971). Known to the world as Coco, those who worked for her during her lifetime and who work for the house of Chanel to this day refer to her in hushed tones as “Mademoiselle,” in case she is listening. She started by designing hats, but soon launched her own clothing line inspired by the clothes worn by her wealthy lovers, her first financial backers. She adored the simple, clean lines and expert tailoring of men’s garments, and had begun to adapt them to suit her slight frame. As a result, she virtually invented the concept of casual chic, for which every woman owes her a debt of gratitude. And the Little Black Dress would be the final metamorphosis of the black school dress uniform and white collar that she had worn as a student in a Catholic orphanage.

“So, what makes the LBD so special?” you ask, and I am so glad you did. The LBD is so special because, quite simply, it goes everywhere and does everything.

On Friday morning, It goes off to the office in a tweed jacket, cranberry scarf and black d’Orsay pumps; on Saturday afternoon it goes to check out the latest Dada retrospective at the Musée Beaubourg in a denim jacket and red kitten heels; on Saturday evening it meets that very special someone for a romantic dinner at Le Train Bleu in a creamy lace bolero and python pumps; and on Sunday afternoon it takes the train from Paris to the country for lunch with tante Germaine in a cashmere cardigan with antique buttons and grey suede T-straps.

“O.K. You’ve convinced me. So, how do I choose the perfect LBD for me?” you ask, and I am so glad you did. Beyond the fact that the classic LBD is sleeveless, unembellished and beautifully tailored, the secrets to choosing your perfect LBD can be broken down into the following three categories.

The Sheath v. the Shift
The sheath dress is designed to show off the curves of a well-proportioned (bust to hip ratio) small-waisted woman by lightly skimming over those curves. It’s your body proportion that counts here, Ladies, not your size. It should never be too tight. As my Mother always says, a dress should be tight enough to show you are a woman but loose enough to show you are a lady.

If you are larger on top (bust) or on the bottom (hip and/or thigh area), choose a sheath with an A-line skirt which floats out over the hip and thigh area, thereby balancing a larger top or camouflaging a larger bottom. In general, the A-line is the most flattering and forgiving skirt shape a woman can wear, and it looks good on everyone.

The shift dress hangs perfectly straight from the shoulders and works well for women who do not have a well-defined waist or who want to conceal a tummy. The shift dress can also have a slight A-line flair to the skirt.

Neckline and Shoulders
A small, rounded neckline is the classic LBD neckline.

If you have narrow shoulders, a Bateau, or boat, neck is more flattering and the shoulder seam should fall at or slightly beyond your natural shoulder line, thereby creating the illusion of wider shoulders. A small, capped sleeve can also widen shoulders.

If you have wider shoulders and well-toned arms (Lucky You!) show them off with a shoulder seam that stops at the edge of your collar bone, inside your natural shoulder line, or go for a halter neck.

If your face and/or body are round, a square neckline adds a touch of angled geometry to your silhouette and is very elegant. By the same token, a rounded neckline softens an angular face and/or body.

If you are large busted, a V-neck will help to break up the bust line by showing more skin and opening up the décolletage area. The amount of cleavage you show is up to you!

Hem Line
Mademoiselle lived to see the miniskirt of the 60’s era and never missed an opportunity to voice her displeasure at the display of what she considered the least attractive part of a woman’s body – her knees. Mercifully, she did not live to see the return of the miniskirt this season. While I do not share Mademoiselle’s particular phobia, I do think that the perfect hem length for the LBD is mid-knee or one inch below the knee.

As to the perfect way to accessorize the LBD? I prefer the classic, clean lines of a crystal flute filled with Veuve Clicquot champagne.

And now you know everything you need to know about choosing the perfect Little Black Dress. Well, not quite. There is still one last secret to be revealed.

Since it is as much a concept as it is a dress, the Little Black Dress need not, in fact, be black at all. “Quelle horreur! What is she saying??” you are thinking. When is a Little Black Dress not a Little Black Dress? When it fits like a Little Black Dress but is in a neutral color that might just be more flattering to your skin tone. While black is definitely slimming, it is not a color which looks good on everyone and can be harsh, particularly as we age. So, why not choose a deep-hued neutral tone that might better complement your coloring – chocolate brown, warm navy or slate grey!! I own four LBDs – two are black, one is navy blue and the other is a deep hunter green, which does wonders for my red hair and ivory skin.

And now you do know everything you need to know about choosing the perfect Little Black Dress, although let’s just keep that last secret between us in case Mademoiselle is listening. No doubt she is having enough trouble this season coping with the return of ladies’ knees.
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