The Grammarphobia Blog

A little black dress

Q: What is the origin of the phrase “little black number,” synonymous with Coco Chanel’s “little black dress”? Why is it called a “number”?

A: The word “number” is often used in ways that have nothing to do with arithmetic, and this is one of them. Since the late 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “number” has been used to mean “an article of clothing.”

The OED’s earliest citation comes from The Real Charlotte (1894), a novel by Edith Somerville and Martin Ross. It has a passage describing shop windows that “had progressed … to straw hats, tennis shoes, and coloured Summer Numbers.”

The OED’s next two examples appear to use “number” to mean, more specifically, a dress:

“Deedee had swathed herself in an afternoon number” (from the Ladies’ Home Journal, 1935), and “an exquisite but throat-high ‘little number’ redeemed by lumps of jade” (from Marguerite Steen’s novel Anna Fitzalan, 1953).

So “little black number” is another way of saying “little black dress,” a phrase from the 19th century that’s almost a cliché in the fashion world today.

Here are just a few of the many references to a “little black dress” that we’ve found in Google searches:

“Then her aunt went to a wardrobe which stood at one end of the room, and brought out a parcel, which she opened, and inside Rosalie saw a beautiful little black dress very neatly and prettily made.” (From A Peep Behind the Scenes, an 1877 novel by Mrs. O. F. Walton.)

“All the time she was braiding my hair, and fastening my little black dress, I was growing sick with dread.” (From “Ma’amselle Fèlice,” a short story by Julia Schayer, published in January 1884 in Swinton’s Story-Teller, a New York literary magazine.)

“Look at her little black dress—rather good, but not so good as it ought to be.” (From Henry James’s novel The Awkward Age, 1899.)

“She wore a simple little black dress that had cost her thirty guineas, and was quite right. She had not been in the Hall ten minutes before bright-eyed Anna Kays had made some very useful mental notes of the simple little black dress.” (From Lindley Kays, a 1904 novel by the British humorist Barry Pain.)

But “little black dress” wasn’t an only child—it had a sister with the same meaning, the “little black frock.” The OED dates “little black frock” back to 1898, when it appeared in an issue of the Manchester Times:

“If I lived in such a place as Northtowers for a continuance, I would buy a little black frock, and when that was worn out I would buy another little black frock, and when that was done with I would build another on the same pattern.”

And, as the OED notes, this clever garment also made an appearance in Henry James’s novel The Wings of the Dove (1902): “She might fairly have been dressed tonight in the little black frock … that Milly had laid aside.”

Until the end of World War I, all such references (whether to a dress or a frock) simply meant a dress noted for being little—the implication is unfussy—and black. But the fashion industry of the 1920s changed all that.

In the world of designer fashion, “little black dress” came to have a more specific meaning, one identified with the fashion houses of Edward Molyneux and Coco Chanel.

Here’s the OED’s definition of this chic fashion classic: “a simple black one-piece garment regarded as an important item of a woman’s wardrobe, suitable for wearing at most kinds of relatively formal social engagement.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1928 issue of the Times (London): “For the afternoon there are simple little black dresses with frilled and draped skirts.”

And here’s the word from Woman & Beauty magazine in 1951: “Invest your all in one good little black dress.”

The phrase became so much a part of the apparel world that it earned a definition in Janey Ironside’s book A Fashion Alphabet (1968):

Little black dress. This highly useful garment was at first almost the trademark of the British designer, Molyneux, who perfected it as an ‘after 6’ look in the cocktail party era between 1920 and 1939. The ultimate in sophistication then, it is still much in demand.”

When Vogue ran a feature on Chanel’s little black dress in 1926, the magazine referred to the LBD as “Chanel’s Ford,” a reference to the popular Model T car, according to The Little Black Dress, a 1998 book by Amy Holman Edelman.

Interestingly, a Newsweek review of Coco, a 1969 Broadway musical, uses both “dress” and “number” in describing a musical routine that featured one of Cecil Beaton’s costumes as “the ‘little black dress’ number.”

In case you’re wondering why the adjectives in “little black dress” appear in that order (not “black little dress”), we once wrote a post on the subject.

But before leaving your original question, about “little black number,” we should point out that we owe “number” to the classical Latin word numerus (sum, total, numeral, number). It has been part of English since around 1300.

And as we noted above, “number” has had many nonmathematical meanings. Here are some of them, along with the dates they were first recorded in the OED:

A single issue of a publication (1728); a person’s fate or doom, as in “his number is up” (1804); a character assessment, as in “to get someone’s number” (1853);  an item in a musical program (1865); a theatrical routine (1908); any person or thing referred to colloquially, as in “that corkscrew is a nice little number” (1903); a reefer or other quantity of marijuana (1963); and an adverse effect, as in “to do a number” on someone (1968).

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