The little black dress and me
Connie Cronley's little black dress.
Once upon a time, I thought the epitome of elegance and glamour was a little black dress.
Know what? I still do. I learned about adult fashion as a skinny little girl in pink-framed glasses in a small Oklahoma town. This was the 1950s and ’60s and I was a little female Mr. Peepers at the movies. I saw the glamorous Lana Turner, sultry Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor as a woman of the evening in “Butterfield 8.” Naughty Rita Hayworth stripped off long black gloves singing "Put the Blame on Mame." Anita Ekberg was joyful abandon in “La Dolce Vita.” Audrey Hepburn gave cool elegance to the long, black dress in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” although that is not what Truman Capote had in mind when he wrote the novella (he hated the movie and Hepburn in the part; he wanted Marilyn Monroe for the role of Holly Golightly).
When I was being imprinted by fashion etiquette, we had a sharp sense of occasion. We honored it by dressing for parties and special events.
I fantasized that I would escape that small Oklahoma town and sit in a New York bar wearing a little black dress, smoking a cigarette in a long holder and drinking something in a stemmed glass. I actually did that, minus the cigarette holder, and as much fun as it was, it was not a highlight of my life.
From the late 1970s to the early ’90s, I was general manager of a ballet company, a job that involved dressy occasions, opening nights and New York premieres. To me, that meant a little black dress.
Eventually, it meant a lot of little black dresses — different silhouettes, hemlines, necklines and fabrics.
The versatile little black dresses and I traveled. In Las Vegas so late one night it was morning, I was among a party in a private, posh restaurant atop a casino. At another table sat Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. So quickly I could have imagined it, I saw Sinatra lean forward and take a closer look at me. I was thin and had short, short blond hair. He must have wondered if I was Mia Farrow. I was not Mia Farrow, of course, and he lost interest in a nanosecond. I was, however, wearing a little black dress and pearls.
That is what I wore to a Broadway show in New York, only to discover that most everyone else was wearing jeans and flip-flops. “It’s the decline of Western civilization,” I said.
I wore a strapless, slinky black dress to a ballet ball one year and Brad Bradstreet asked me to dance. Brad was a distinguished gentleman in his tuxedo and 40 years my senior.
“Brad,” I said, “it’s a fast dance. I can’t dance to that music in this dress.”
“Darlin’,” he said, “in that dress, you can do anything you want to.”
To learn the power of the little black dress, read “Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X” by Deborah Davis. It is the dual biography of the painter and the model, and the scandal that rocked the 1884 Paris Salon when the famous portrait was first displayed. Her reputation was shattered forever and he had to flee the country.
Will the Tulsa exhibit featuring art inspired by these little black dresses be equally shocking? Probably not, but in putting this show together, we discovered that there is no such thing as a simple little black dress. Add imagination and the individuality of the woman wearing it and the possibilities are endless. Like women ourselves. stripped off long black gloves singing “Put the Blame on Mame.”