It may be the one uniform that women genuinely like to wear.
The little black dress has been rediscovered as every woman's ultimate fashion necessity. Its graceful lines and slimming color give it a versatility unmatched by any other garment, except perhaps the man's navy blazer.
But the man's jacket doesn't match the LBD for versatility. The best little black dresses go from the office to a black-tie affair or even a nightclub with just a change of accessories.
The dress returned to the mass market last fall, but it has become such a favorite that, this season, many department stores have created sections displaying multiple versions. Prices for all-lace styles start in the $60 range at Saks Fifth Avenue's junior department and at about $60 and $70 at Marshalls. Bargain hunters can easily find cotton lycra dresses on sale at boutiques for as little as $25. From the high-fashion aisles of Neiman Marcus and I. Magnin to the discount racks of Marshalls, the dress has received a warm welcome.
"It's a staple wardrobe piece that women come back to year after year," said Michelle Healy, spokeswoman for Marshalls, a chain of discount clothing stores. "It's very figure-flattering. Almost everybody looks trim, and now with the shorter length, it LTC makes you look leggy," she said.
Women rediscovered the virtues of the LBD as the perfect evening dress. It wasn't long before they began wearing it everywhere and wanting more than one.
"They are buying a bare, black dress to start with," said Kay Unger, owner and designer of Gillian Inc., a New York-based better dresses company. "Then they might get a black coat dress or a dinner suit," she said. "None of them are fussy. "
The most popular dresses are in a satin-backed rayon crepe and do not have overly obvious buttons or trims, she said.
Evidently, they are the favorite of the country's fashion professionals, many of whom wore them in Los Angeles for Look West, a spring fashion preview.
"I own three little black dresses just to be on the safe side," said Robin Givhan, a fashion writer with the Detroit Free Press. "Each has its own purpose. One is the summer little black dress. One is the winter little black dress. One is the funky little black dress."
Givhan dresses each up or down with accessories, depending on where she is headed in it.
The black dress has drawn rave reviews from its fans for other reasons. It may be the only dress that makes everyone feel elegant and hides those accidental dribbles of champagne.
Melissa Dunst, a New York fashion writer, bought her favorite black dress at a thrift store in Spain.
"It's the one black dress I wear to every function that I don't have 'repeat' people at," she said. "Because it's very simple, no one recognizes it as the same dress."
Even the most fabulous black dress can make an entrance, time after time, and not be remembered, said Denise Cohen-Scher, fashion director of the CaliforniaMart.
She owns a tank-style Donna Karan little black dress in heavy silk. She didn't have trouble justifying the nearly $500 price tag.
"I'm a Donna Karan fanatic, anyway," she said. "But you could buy one for $200 in velvet and one in wool for $300, but then you would have a couple of dresses you don't like that well, and you might just as well have one you love for $500. I wear mine to work, too."
In Southern California's nearly seasonless climate, buying one fabulous black dress makes more sense. Cohen-Scher suggested buying one in a heavy silk fabric or a crepe that resists wrinkles. She also prefers dresses short to achieve the freshest look in hemlines. She pairs her black dress with a long jacket so it provides the new long-over-short silhouette.
Unger, who offers a vast selection of little black dresses throughout her company, especially the evening division, A.J. Bari, agrees that short is the freshest look. For evening, her company is offering fingertip-length swing coats to match the dresses.
Cohen-Scher and Unger said most of the dresses look best with sheer, nude-colored hose and high heels for evening, flats and a blazer for daytime.
"I'm sitting here in a black dress," said Unger from her New York office. She wears hers to work and brings different shoes, earrings and a handbag to take the look from daytime to nighttime.
The black dress, even if it costs $200, also makes economic sense for women who prefer investment over trendy dressing.
"If you don't have a lot of money to get something new for every party you go to, you just switch the accessories around," said Healy of Marshalls. "In tight economic times, which we have now, that's what people are doing."