Models (L-R) Joshua Cairns, Grace Dempsey and Shannon Summers arrive at the National Museum of Scotland ahead of the opening of Beyond the Little Black Dress on Saturday (1 July). The exhibition deconstructs an iconic wardrobe staple, examining the radical power of the colour black in fashion. Image copyright Duncan McGlynn

Major fashion exhibition ‘Beyond the Little Black Dress’ opens this weekend at the National Museum of Scotland

A new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland deconstructs the little black dress, examining the radical power of the colour black in fashion. From design classics to cutting-edge catwalk creations, Beyond the Little Black Dress (1 July to 29 October 2023) brings together 65 striking looks from collections and designers around the world. 

Press images are available here. 
Video footage is available here 

The colour black can be interpreted in many subtle and often contradictory ways. The exhibition explores 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 opens 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 supported 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 Schiaparelli will be juxtaposed with recent looks by ground-breaking contemporary designers and brands like Gareth Pugh, Simone Rocha and Off-White.  

A section of the exhibition highlights Black British designers whose work explores both Blackness in terms of identity, and the role the colour black plays in crafting an Afrofuturistic aesthetic. Elsewhere, the exhibition considers how perceptions of the colour black differ in a global context, while a film from Osman Yousefzada shines a light on the inequities of fast fashion, as well as global concepts of beauty. A series of garments demonstrate how smart technologies are establishing a blueprint for a more sustainable future. A new commission by designers VIN + OMI incorporates nettles and horsehair sourced from Highgrove, the private residence of The King and Queen, exploring nature-led alternatives to fast fashion.  

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 said:  

“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 programme of events.   

The accompanying book Little Black Dress: A Radical Fashion edited by Georgina Ripley, £30.00, is published by NMS Enterprises Ltd – Publishing. 

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Notes to editors

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  1. National Museums Scotland is one of the leading museum groups in the UK and Europe and it looks after collections of national and international importance. The organisation provides loans, partnerships, research and training in Scotland and internationally. Our individual museums are the National Museum of Scotland, the National Museum of Flight, the National Museum of Rural Life and the National War Museum. The National Museums Collection Centre in Edinburgh houses conservation and research facilities as well as collections not currently on display. 

Twitter: @NtlMuseumsScot  
Instagram: @NationalMuseumsScotland 

2. Bheireadh Oifis nam Meadhanan eadar-theangachadh Gàidhlig den bhrath-naidheachd seachad do bhuidhinn mheadhanan bharantaichte. Cuiribh fios do dh'Oifis nam Meadhanan airson bruidhinn air cinn-latha freagarrach.