In the world of fashionable holiday dressing, we've done splashes of color, flounces and frills. Flamboyant beading, daring ornamentation and even evening pantsuits have made the occasional trendy appearance. And, of course, hemlines have risen and fallen -- and risen again.
This year, however, the star of the season is a well-loved item that's never gone out of style -- the little black dress.
"There's a kind of a revival of the little black dress," said Gina Tovar, Nordstrom's East Coast fashion director. "We'd been seeing a lot of color over the past couple of seasons in the fashion world. We've had a lot of decoration, a lot of eclectic mixes, prints and patterns. Black is the opposite of all that. At this point in time, it's refreshing, it's easy."
And, the little black dress is -- for the first time in years -- the season's biggest must-have in the fashion world.
But it's making its 2001 appearance with modern accents that Holly Golightly might never have imagined.
The new little black dress comes with sleeves long or short. It can be sleek and slimming or loose and flowy, perhaps with a romantic Grecian toga flair. It can have a navel-plunge neckline that says sex kitten or a high collar that conveys little girl chic.
"When we think of the little black dress, we look back at Breakfast at Tiffany's and the great dress that Audrey Hepburn wore and how that simple black dress looked so elegant and spectacular," said Shawny Burns, spokeswoman for Saks Fifth Avenue. "But there are a lot of different takes on the little black dress now. There might be a little bit of a ruffle at the hem or the armhole might be cut a little differently or there might be a deep 'V' in the front. It's some little detail that doesn't make it completely plain."
But simplicity always has been part of the appeal of the little black dress.
For decades, generations of women have stood in front of their closets, agonizing over appropriate evening attire only to pull out a little black dress, which always was chic, sexy -- and safe.
"One of the great appeals of the little black dress is that it's been a safe option for a long time," said Valerie Steele, acting director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "The essence of it is that it's never incorrect. It's a blank canvas on which people can paint so many things. It's discreet, it's cool, it's appropriate, it's sexy but it's also dramatic and downtown and slimming. There's such an incredible layering of meanings that go into it."
Steele said the little black dress has been popular in this country since the 1920s, when it evolved as an offshoot of the black mourning dresses that became prevalent in Europe and America during the World War I.
In the 1950s, the outfit became the rage again when glamorous designers like Cristobal Balenciaga took cues from the 1920s and unveiled season after season of gorgeous little black dresses.
"It became an elegant cocktail uniform for women -- the black cocktail dress and the string of pearls," Steele said. "The idea was to not be demonstrative, that less is more. It was always chic and appropriate."
But the trend disappeared in the 1960s and 1970s before surfacing in the 1980s, when the popularity of black took over the fashion scene after years of psychedelic fads.
Despite its firm foothold in the wardrobes of many women, the little black dress had taken a back seat in fashion in recent years as designers explored colors and patterns in cacophonous hues. But it's making its comeback at a time when people are more unsure than ever before of how to dress for the holiday season in these post-Sept. 11 times. And, with the country in recession, the urge to splurge and step out in a ball gown is dimmer than in recent years.
"Even before Sept. 11, it seemed to be an item that stood out with a lot of designers in their fall collections," Burns said. "Once Sept. 11 happened, we did see a lot of drop-off in evening wear. ... Everybody is saddened by what happened and you can't ignore that. So if you're looking for a holiday dress, you can go with a simple black dress, where the beauty is in how it's cut."
And, even with all the different little black dress options out there, Burns said, these wardrobe items tend to have greater longevity than most.
"I bought a little black Badgley Mischka dress nine years ago and it is still to this day a great dress," Burns said. "If you want to update your wardrobe and you haven't bought a new little black dress, this is a great season to do it. You know you'll be able to wear it year after year.
"That's the great thing about the little black dress," she added, "it'll never go out of style."
SIMPLE TRIMMINGS FOR THE CLASSIC IN BLACK
When it comes to accessorizing this season's hot little black dress, fashion observers offer one age-old reminder: "Less is more."
"People are done with excess," said Mary Jimenez, vice president and general merchandise manager at Eluxury.com. "What would be a don't is the necklace and the bracelet and the handbag and the dripping logos. Just have that one statement piece."
Here are some options for dressing up that little black dress:
* A great handbag
Whether it's something edgy or something sweet, pick your purse this season to provide the punchy accent to your black dress. Christian Dior's crescent-shaped trailer bag offers a playful touch, while Marc Jacobs' adorable circle frame clutch with its patent leather discs is a gorgeous, modern take on the 1950s Jackie O purses.
* A simple necklace
Unfussy chokers or chains are the way to go this season. Try something along the lines of Bulgari's B. Zero white gold chain and logo pendant or a chic leather choker.
* Signature watches
This season, watches aren't merely to be used for telling time. Their far more important purpose now is to complement your little black dress. Try a funky bangled watch like Fendi's Pyramid watch or Christian Dior's black leather watch with silver eyelets that provide a fetishist's flair.
* Unusual shoes
Instead of wearing the customary strappy heels this season, pair your little black dress with knee-high boots or mules.
* Interesting hosiery
Fishnets are on their way off the trendy spectrum, but those with a tighter pattern are still in vogue this season. Or, to spice your little black dress up, try Christian Dior's Barbarella Spider Tights, which cling to a woman's legs in a large, dramatic, spider-web pattern.
PHOTO CREDITS: Styled by L. Candace Easterling and modeled by Andrea Pennington, both of T.H.E. Artist Agency Chaiken black lace dress from Octavia's in Pikesville Black cashmere and mink cape from Gartenhaus Furs at Octavia's Necklace, earrings and bracelet from Ransom's Boutique in Towsontown Center