News - Beyond the Little Black Dress

A new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland this summer will deconstruct the little black dress, examining the radical power of the colour black in fashion ...

Press Release

From design classics to cutting-edge catwalk creations, Beyond the Little Black Dress (1st July to 29th October 2023) will bring together more than 60 striking looks from collections and designers around the world. 

The colour black can be interpreted in many subtle and often contradictory ways. The exhibition will explore how its complexities have made the little black dress simultaneously expressive of piety and perversion, respect and rebellion; from the well-mannered cocktail attire of the early 20th century to the leather and latex worn by members of punk and fetish subcultures.

Beyond the Little Black Dress will open with a simple, short black dress designed by Coco Chanel in 1926. Considered radically modern, it disregarded convention entirely in both the stark design and sombre shade, that had traditionally been associated with mourning. At the time it was hailed by US Vogue as “the frock that all the world will wear”. The ‘little black dress’ became a wardrobe staple, a symbol of femininity and a byword for chic, with each new silhouette capturing the spirit of its time.

The little black dress remains a blank canvas for broader political and cultural shifts. It can challenge social norms around race, gender and sexuality to reflect evolving ideals of beauty and identity, proving its infinite capacity for reinvention.

Visitors to Beyond the Little Black Dress, which is sponsored by Baillie Gifford Investment Managers, will discover a century of fashion in a series of themed, immersive displays. Iconic early pieces by Yves Saint Laurent, Dior and Jean Muir will be juxtaposed with recent looks by ground-breaking contemporary designers and brands like Gareth Pugh, Simone Rocha and Off-White.

Areas of the exhibition will be dedicated to highlighting Black British designers whose work explores both Blackness in terms of identity, and the role the colour black plays in crafting a futuristic, sci-fi aesthetic. Elsewhere, the exhibition considers how perceptions of the colour black differ in a global context, as well as how the intervention of smart technologies are establishing a blueprint for a more sustainable future.

Georgina Ripley, Principal Curator, Modern and Contemporary Design at National Museums Scotland, said, “Few garments are as iconic as the little black dress, which has often been held up by the fashion industry as the one piece every woman should have in her wardrobe. It has evolved dramatically in the century since its creation. From a simple shift dress which helped democratise women’s fashion to a bold political statement, it has moved through various iterations which reflect changing ideals of beauty and body image. Displaying classic couture, avant-garde pieces and garments that make a political statement, this exhibition will explore its enduring success, and ask why, in the fickle and fast-paced fashion world, the little black dress has achieved that rare status of being truly above the fray.”

Sam Pattman, Philanthropy Manager at Baillie Gifford Investment Managers, added, “We are delighted that our successful relationship with National Museums Scotland continues with our support for Beyond the Little Black Dress. This exciting exhibition takes a fresh look at a timeless classic, examining how it has remained in style for nearly a century and displaying a dazzling selection of garments from those worn by royalty to truly avant-garde creations at the cutting edge of the fashion industry.”

National Museums Scotland’s internationally significant fashion and textiles collection comprises around 50,000 objects and is one of the largest in the UK. The collection includes textiles dating back to the 14th century and clothing and accessories dating from the 16th century to the present day. Beyond the Little Black Dress follows the acclaimed exhibition Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk.

The exhibition is curated by Georgina Ripley, Principal Curator, Modern and Contemporary Design, National Museums Scotland, Dr Sequoia Barnes, Guest Curator and Carys Wilkins, Assistant Curator Modern and Contemporary Design, National Museums Scotland. It will be accompanied by a publication and programme of events.

Beyond the Little Black Dress runs from Saturday 1 July to Sunday 29 October 2023 at National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh. Find out more at

Images - Woman's evening dress. French, c. 1929. Image © National Museums Scotland (1)
Illustration of Chanel’s little black dress by Main Rousseau Bocher, Vogue, 1 October 1926
Olivier Theyskens Runway, Autumn Winter 2019, Paris. Image courtesy Gil-Gonzalez Alain, ABACA, Shutterstock

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