Is There an Alternative to the Little Black Dress?

The little black dress has been regarded as a holy grail of fashion ever since Coco Chanel championed the concept back in 1926, proffering it as an alternative to the fussier, more colorful frocks popular at the time. Heralded by American Vogue, which called the little black dress the haute version of “the Ford” and declared that it would be “a sort of uniform for all women of taste,” as well as Christian Dior, who called it “essential,” it combined utilitarianism and sophistication.

Anyone in doubt simply had to look to Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”; Jackie Kennedy, who wore one for Richard Avedon’s 1961 portrait of the first couple; and Princess Diana, whose famous “revenge dress” was the ultimate little black dress. At this point, the garment has become so ubiquitous it has its own acronym: the LBD.

The problem is, as you note, not everyone loves, or looks good in, black. Not everyone even loves a dress. So what to do?

Embrace poetic license.

Instead of thinking of the LBD as a “little black dress,” think of it as a “little basic dress.” Or even “little basic duds.” The point is to keep the ethos of the LBD — the idea that a simple, easy garment with a fabulous line can take you pretty much anywhere — but free yourself from the restriction of color and garment.

That means thinking of what, for you, would be the equivalent. Perhaps it is a little navy dress. Or a little ivory one. Maybe even a little beige one. Perhaps it is a great trouser suit (maybe even a tuxedo) in a jewel tone like emerald or sapphire.

Whatever you come up with, it has to fulfill certain criteria: It should be a neutral but plush enough material to evade categorization, in a color that doesn’t immediately inspire a host of associations, and be cut exactingly enough to carry a look on its own — and free of distracting frippery.

Stay away from linen, which screams summer and wrinkles; denim, which is more casual; and synthetics. Avoid hot pinks and chartreuse. (Avoid neon in general.) Look for medium-weight wools, silks or a ponte knit. And remember: Simplicity leaves nowhere to hide, so details like necklines, placement of the seams and finishing matter.

Then consider stretching your budget. If you are going to have one go-to item, it’s worth an investment. You can amortize the cost across the anticipated number of times you’ll wear it.

Finally, consider context. A great dress or trouser suit worn with sneakers, shades and a straw hat can go for a stroll in the city or to a farmers’ market. Add sandals and jewelry, and it can go to cocktails. Swap in spike heels, a fancy clutch and more gems, and it’s black tie. Take a cue from the OG LBD model, Chanel herself, draped in her pearls and camellias.

In the end, the genius of the LBD, however you define it, is that it is, in essence, simply a basic sartorial canvas on which you can impose your personality as the occasion demands. Paint away.

Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or X. Questions are edited and condensed.

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