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Styling: Maureen Dowd on a Wardrobe Classic

From Little Black Dress by André Leon Talley

September 5, 2013

New York Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd, in her essay “The Mythic Power of the Little Black Dress,” excerpted here from Little Black Dress by André Leon Talley (2013, Skira Rizzoli), muses on a wardrobe staple.

Lugubrious black was not on my radar for many years. Black was the color of scary nuns and garb for Irish wakes. It was the color my immigrant great-aunts wore for their jobs as maids for rich families. Even our family dog, Scottie, hated black; we had to give him away because he bit anyone wearing black, including my brothers in their prom tuxedos.

Natalie Wood in Love with the Proper Stranger, 1963. © Paramount Pictures Corporation, Boardwalk Productions, and Rona, Inc. From Little Black Dress by André Leon Talley (2013, Skira Rizzoli).

But when I was ten, I had an epiphany. I snuck into my older brother’s room while he was out to see if he had any racy reading material. After unsuccessfully trying to fathom the shenanigans in Story of O, the classic French erotic novel that presaged Fifty Shades of Grey, I picked up a Life magazine. I flipped through and found a picture of Natalie Wood, her beautiful big brown eyes huge with excitement and pleasure. She was with the wardrobe people from the movie she was making at the time, the 1963 drama Love with the Proper Stranger. The actress was looking in the mirror, modeling a little black dress she would wear to ensorcell her co-star, Steve McQueen.

Natalie talked to the Life reporter about how much she loved that dress. I was puzzled, and intrigued. The dress didn’t look like anything special. It was boring old black, with no bows, sequins, fringe, or roses. Why did she look so incredibly elated?

Years later, when I grew up and saw Love with the Proper Stranger, I understood black magic’s spell. In the film Natalie plays Angie Rossini, a virginal Catholic shopgirl at Macy’s who falls into a one-night stand with a playboy jazz trumpeter, McQueen’s Rocky Papasano, and gets pregnant. She tracks down Rocky and breaks the news. Even though he barely remembers her, he agrees to help her raise the money for an abortion. He goes with her to the meatpacking district at the appointed hour, but when he realizes the abortionist, a creepy woman setting up on the floor of a grimy tenement, is not a doctor, he gets the hysterical Angie out of there.

Angie’s three overprotective Italian brothers are trying to pressure her into marrying a pudgy, clumsy chef. Rocky also offers to marry her, or “take his medicine,” as he puts it. Angie says no, explaining that she doesn’t want to make another mistake and be someone’s “medicine.” She wants true love— bells and banjos.

The Book

Little Black Dress André Leon Talley

Angie strikes out on her own, leaving her family’s apartment to live alone in a tiny walk-up. She invites Rocky over for dinner. Before he arrives, she puts on that little black dress. She fusses in the mirror, yanking the scoop neck up so that her décolletage is not showing, but the dress keeps resuming its rightful place. She puts on a strand of pearls, hoping it will cover the alluring bit of cleavage, but it doesn’t.

The dress is very simple: three-quarter-length sleeves, belted at the waist, and down to the knee, but very sultry, molded to her delicate curves. It transforms her from an ordinary Macy’s shopgirl in trouble to a sexy Manhattan career girl ready for trouble.

Angie opens the door. Rocky, holding flowers, looks her up and down with that melting McQueen gaze. His jaw goes slack. “You look wild,’’ he says. “You look like...”—he struggles for the right compliment—“...like a woman.” They tumble onto the couch and fall in love. He shows up at Macy’s the next day with bells and a banjo.

Such is the mythic power of the little black dress.

Excerpted by permission from Maureen Dowd, “The Mythic Power of the Little Black Dress,” © Little Black Dress by André Leon Talley, Skira Rizzoli, 2013.

Watch for André Leon Talley’s Book List on Designers & Books this coming Tuesday, September 10. André Leon Talley will speak at the 92nd Street Y as part of the series Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis series on October 8.

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