Next summer’s blockbuster show at the National Museum of Scotland will feature at least 60 dresses worn by the likes of Princess Margaret, American socialite Wallis Simpson and actress Vivien Leigh.
Its first major fashion exhibition, which will be accompanied by a series of special events, will draw on collections from around the world to tell the story of how the dress would become “a wardrobe staple, a symbol of femininity and a byword for chic.”
Starting with the unveiling in 1926 of a short black dress by Chanel, which was immediately hailed by US Vogue magazine as “the frock that all the world will wear,” the show will juxtapose classic pieces with examples of the latest cutting-edge designs, including "robotic dresses" which can have their appearance altered using new technology.
The exhibition, Little Black Dress, which opens next June, will also explore issues such as empowerment, fetishism, rebellion and even witchcraft, and also examine how the little black dress has been seen as rebellious or “anti-establishment,” and its links with goth and punk culture.
Georgina Ripley, senior curator of modern and contemporary fashion at the National Museum, said: “The exhibition will be considering a century of the little black dress, exploring its subtle and often contradictory nuances of meaning, and juxtaposing classic chic ideals with contemporary inventions.
“The thing about the little black dress is that it is very much a blank canvas from which you can understand a lot about fashion.
“There some three over-arching questions we want to consider that will position this exhibition very much within the here and now.
“We’ll be looking at how technological advancements are driving sartorial innovation and how that is reflected in the little black dress, exploring whether we can still position this as a symbol of femininity in the wake of women’s empowerment movements such as #metoo and #timesup that have really elevated the global consciousness around women’s issues and gender equality.
"We’ll also be considering what the role of the little black dress is in our lives today and what its future looks like.”
Classic designers set to be featured in the exhibition include Sir Norman Hartnell, who is best known for his work for the Royal Family, and the 1960s fashion icon Mary Quant.
Gareth Pugh, who has worked with Kylie Minogue, Beyonce and Lady Gaga, and Molly Goddard, whose creations were worn by assassin Villanelle in hit TV drama Killing Eve, will be among the contemporary British designers showcased.
Little Black Dress is the first major showcase of the National Museum’s extensive fashion and textiles collection, which includes around 50,000 objects dating as far back as the 16th century.
Ms Ripley added: “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. 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 early pieces, sumptuous couture and examples of cutting-edge technology, 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.”
Other shows in the museum's 2020 line-up include the arrival of the most comprehensive ever exhibition on tyrannosaurs, a showcase of highlights of the hoard of Viking-age treasures found by a metal detectorist after a two-year conservation programme and a rare chance to see the Declaration of Arbroath, to coincide with its 700th anniversary.