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EVERYBODY'S LITTLE BLACK DRESS

IT'S SIMPLE, yet dressy. Sexy, yet respectable. Classic, but somehow always new.

This season, designers love the Little Black Dress. Forget the globs of glitter, the ostrich feathers, the billowy ball gowns.

Ralph Lauren shows a short black dress with spaghetti straps and sweetheart neckline. Above-the-elbow black gloves, sheer black hosiery and black pumps complete the look.

Liz Claiborne dresses up women in a long-sleeved black fitted chemise with a sequin design on neckline and sleeves.

And Mary Ann Restivo's black lace slip dress is shockingly bare.

"The little black dress has always been, but somehow every year when it comes out, it seems a little bit more exciting," said Ruth E. Peachey, owner of Mabel Danahy Inc., a specialty dress shop.

"And that doesn't mean it's embellished heavily. It's usually very simplified. Maybe it has a low back or a high neck, but it is always wonderful," she said.

Psychologically, most women feel elegant -- and thin -- in black.

"A black dress generally looks wonderful on any woman. Women always are going to wear the little black dress, pearls and a pair of black satin pumps," said Janice Worobec, better sportswear buyer for Jenss.

And, of course, the L.B.D. is a showcase for jewelry -- real or faux.

Even the woman who looks less than lovely in such a dark hue can lighten things up at the neckline by wearing pearls or gold or silver jewelry.

"Or she can wear a pretty silk scarf with a diamond pin, which, of course, every woman has right in her top drawer," said Alison Kimberly, owner of Par Avion Inc.

This holiday season, there also are the usual assortment of velvet little black dresses -- ranging from the demure long-sleeve versions with round or sweetheart necklines to updated styles that look more like lingerie than dresses.

Even some of this season's two- and three-piece ensembles -- a short black skirt with camisole and jacket, for example -- fall into the L.B.D. category.

So why do we call it the Little Black Dress?

"I think it's because it's usually short, and there are not a lot of big, fluffy sleeves or flounces on the hem. It probably takes as little fabric as any dress takes," Miss Peachey said.

The Little Black Dress also is just an affectionate name, she added.

Yet the story behind the classic style is not as abbreviated as this season's hemlines may suggest. The most alluring aspect of the Little Black Dress -- the fact that it is sophisticated yet, at the same time, sexy -- may well date back a century to what one sociologist called the "pursuit of the widow."

"The black dress became sexy attire because only widows wore black, and widows were seen as women with sexual experience," said Dr. Ruth P. Rubinstein, assistant professor of sociology at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

Widows also could provide upward mobility to a young man. "Widows also had the money and could help a guy out," she said.

Consider, too, that at the turn of the century, women in Paris and London wanted appropriate mourning dresses, but they did not want to give up fashion.

So designers designed bereavement clothes with style, and American women adopted them, Dr. Rubinstein added.

Designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel also was involved in propagating the Little Black Dress.

In "Chanel: A Woman of Her Own" (Henry Holt and Co., $19.95), author Axel Madsen describes the various versions of how the extraordinary designer "invented" the black dress.

According to one story, Coco Chanel designed the L.B.D. after watching women maneuver themselves in beads and feathers during a gala opening at the opera.

In another retelling, Madsen writes, it was the death of Arthur "Boy" Capel, a former lover of Chanel, that prompted her to say, "I'm going to put the whole world in mourning for him."

Either way, the dress endures. But, some say, its prevalence this season may simply be a matter of economics. Black always sells.

"In times gone by, we might have had a dress in a choice of black, navy, bottle green or ruby," said Alison Kimberly. "Women have always bought black, but sometimes they would buy another color, too.

"This year, there isn't that kind of choice for the store. And going even further back in the chain, there isn't that kind of choice to the manufacturers from the piece-goods (textiles) people. It's a vicious large circle."

In shaky times, "Black is safe," she said.

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