Audrey Hepburn’s little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is often cited as the original LBD. This offends me, personally, since Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was published a full century before that movie came out. Indeed, fans of Russian literature—or, let’s face it, of Keira Knightley—will recall the iconic black dress Anna wore to the ball where she first danced with Vronsky, breaking Kitty’s heart. But what makes Anna’s dress, and Tolstoy’s novel for that matter, so memorable that we still care about it nearly 150 years later?
For one, it is not Anna’s dress that makes her stand out from the crowd: it is her, in all her effervescent glory that draws attention to her elegant, “inconspicuous.” dress. Tolstoy writes, “[Kitty] now saw [Anna] in a completely new and unexpected light. She realised that Anna could not have worn lilac, and that her charm consisted precisely in the fact that she always stood out from what she wore, that what she wore could never be noticeable on her. The black dress with its sumptuous lace was indeed not noticeable on her; it was just a frame, and all that was visible was her simple, natural, elegant, and yet also light-hearted and vivacious self.” Kitty, with her innocent girl-crush on her older relative, realises in this moment that Anna’s beautiful personality is what attracts people to her, and not just her good looks. Tolstoy espouses the same motto as fashion bloggers today: it’s not what you wear, but how you wear it.
Anna’s inherent charm draws Vronsky away from Kitty and into her clutches. Later, what pains Kitty most is not the loss of a prospective match or Anna’s betrayal so much as the blank, indifferent gaze Vronsky bestows upon her. Although Vronsky never guesses Kitty’s worth, Levin (Kitty’s future husband) recognises her inherent goodness and worships her for it. Through these parallel relationships, Tolstoy illustrates the confusing, heart wrenching, borderline fatalistic parts of love which have eluded writers before and after him.
I think there’s something to be said about portraying women as beautiful, not just for their looks, but for the inherent uniqueness and brightness which lives within all of us. I love how Tolstoy’s prowess as a writer of psychological realism transforms a description of Anna’s dress into a moving evocation of Kitty’s first crush and heartbreak. This is but one example of the multitude of striking scenes which have inspired countless film-adaptations of this novel. To me, Anna’s dress stands out to me as a contradictory symbol of femininity, cunning, artlessness, and power. It’s no wonder the LBD remains the best outfit for vengeance.