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The secrets behind ‘Coco’ Chanel’s black magic

Andrea Macko, Dishing It Out

Black may be defined as the absence of all colour, but a little black dress holds a lot more meaning that you’d think.

Just ask the Westover Inn, which hosted its first-ever Little Black Dress night this past Saturday. As the name implies, it was a women-only affair, and a savvy move on the Westover’s behalf to drag us out of the January doldrums and don our fancy duds — without having to drive out of town in the dead of winter.

While few would question the joys of fine dining, you can’t help but wonder how black dresses became the party style standard. All the ladies looked great Saturday evening, in countless variations of the fashion classic. But how did black — so often worn to show sadness, respect and anonymity — become the party standard? Why not a more festive shade, like hot pink, sunny yellow, or a glamorous green?

Black’s association with mourning dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but it was Queen Victoria who popularized mourning dress for Westerners. From the death of Prince Albert in 1861 to her own death in 1901, she wore full black (most Victorians of the time donned black for a mere year to mark the passing of a loved one, eventually branching out to grey).

It only took a quarter-century for Victoria’s fashion standard to become passé. Black became chic — not sad — in the hands of famed fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel during the Roaring ’20s. Chanel opened her first boutique in 1910, and quickly gained a reputation for her revolutionary approach to women’s wear. She cut women loose from their corsets and poufy sleeves by cutting traditional “work” fabrics like tweed and jersey — in masculine colours like grey and navy — into simple dresses and suits, often inspired by military uniforms.

Even the most fashion-impaired are likely to recognize the name Chanel. Marilyn Monroe slept in the brand’s iconic perfume, No. 5. If you’ve ever worn a tweed skirt suit, or a sailor-style striped shirt, you have Coco Chanel to thank. In fact, Chanel even helped popularize the wearing of pants by women by reworking men’s trousers on her tiny frame.

But it was a simple, knee-length black dress designed in 1926 that would catapult Chanel to the level of fashion legend. The sleeved shift, with gentle pleating down its front, is featured on the company’s website (www.chanel.com), and it could be worn today with confidence that it is every bit as modern as the latest trend.

American Vogue compared the groundbreaking style to Ford’s assembly-line cars: stylish yet versatile, this dress could go anywhere. The style collided perfectly with the increasingly liberal existence of many Western women. New responsibilities like the right to vote and own property demanded more efficient clothing.

But Chanel also crafted evening versions, dripping in pearls and lace — two other brand trademarks — that were beloved by flappers everywhere.

According to colour trend firm Sensationalcolour.com, black is authoritative and powerful, yet inconspicuous. In Western culture, it’s associated with evil — like those bad luck-bearing black cats — as well as the unknown, says www.colourmatters.com.

Of course, women know black is also slimming; it doesn’t reflect light, which means it doesn’t show shadows — such as those created by inherently female lumps and bumps — creating a more flattering silhouette.

Add it all up on a dress and you get a seductive mix of meaning, mystery and flattery, something Coco Chanel grasped all those years ago. And, judging by the effervescent laughter and confident postures on Saturday night, women will never surrender our little black dresses: we love how they make us feel too much.

What else do women love? Chocolate, especially when it’s as deep and dark as these brownies. Hang onto this recipe for Valentine’s Day; that it’s also gluten-free is a bonus for sensitive stomachs.

Chocolate Velvet Brownies

3 oz. bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
6 tbsp. butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup corn starch
4 tsp. cocoa powder
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 eggs, at room temperature

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang at each end, and butter-exposed sides.

Melt chocolate and butter together in a double-boiler until completely melted and glossy. While warm, stir in sugar and salt. Let stand 3-5 minutes to cool slightly. Meanwhile, sift together corn starch, cocoa and baking powder in a medium bowl. Add vanilla extract to cooled chocolate mixture and stir to combine. Stir in eggs, one at a time, until well incorporated. Add corn starch mixture and stir into chocolate mixture until smoothly blended.

Pour into prepared pan and bake until slightly puffed, shiny and cracked at the surface, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely. Refrigerate at least one hour before cutting.

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