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Packing Light? A Little Black Dress May Still Be a Woman’s Best Choice

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

While sketching Wallis Simpson in 1937, the designer, Cecil Beaton, said, “She is at her best in a nondescript black dress that she makes smart by wearing. She reminds me of the neatest, newest luggage, and is as compact as a Vuitton traveling-case.”

I’ll never marry the Duke of Windsor, the way Simpson did. But I can still aspire to her perfect, self-contained look when traveling, symbolized by the little black dress. With it and just a few other items--ideally also in black--a women can really go places, and have fun shopping before she ever leaves home. (A few places to look for chic travel clothing later; first, the rationale.)

I’m not talking about rough travel to off-the-beaten-track places, but the straightforward two-week trip to London, Paris or any sophisticated city where looking dowdy affects the way a woman is treated and how she feels. So I don’t pack old clothes, throwing them out as I go. But I also don’t leave with next to nothing, spending freely for new outfits on the road. Instead, I try to follow the advice of Elaine St. James, featured on the video, “The Secrets of Simple Packing” (Magellan’s International Travel Corp., 1996), by taking “all the things I need, not all the things I think I might need.”

Why not take it all, just in case? Because happy, secure, cost-conscious travelers always pack light. With airlines cracking down on carry-on baggage and losing millions of pieces of luggage a year, it only makes sense. Traveling compactly also saves time and money on cabs and porters, conserves precious energy and helps you stay in control of your belongings, which in turn, deters theft. So my rule of thumb is: Never take more than you can carry while running for a bus.

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This entails wearing my bulkiest items on the plane and carrying a backpack containing odds and ends, which leaves my hands free for one small bag. Regardless of how long I plan to stay away, I stuff the bag with a week’s worth of washable, mix-and-matchable clothes--because I like foreign coin laundries, and who’ll care if I wear the same outfit twice?

My packing list includes one pair of trousers and jeans, an elastic-waisted full skirt, a jacket (with pockets), a cardigan sweater, two blouses that don’t need ironing, two pairs of shoes, leggings, socks, a set of long underwear in silk, a bathing suit or leotard, various unmentionables and a little black dress, of course. Actually, with the possible exception of the blouses, undies and jeans, everything that goes in my bag is black. That’s my whole point. Black--the color that solves every packer’s biggest problem--is how to travel light but still look chic.

Black is durable, relatively stain-proof and easily enlivened with belts, dime-store baubles (because I never travel with expensive jewelry), printed blouses or scarves (which I like to buy while away). But it’s best left virtually alone, as the world’s most stylish little black dress wearers, such as Audrey Hepburn and Tina Turner know.

Some women claim that black makes them look old, which may partly explain why Judith Gilford, author of “The Packing Book” (Ten Speed Press, 1994), suggests grays, neutral beiges, brown and navy too. And I’m ready to admit that there are some places where black can look odd--for instance, on an iceberg in Hudson Bay or a sand dune in the Gobi Desert. Still, I won’t part with my black traveling wardrobe because, as the British designer Mary Quant once said, black “can be all things to all women--and men.”

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Rebellious ever since the beatniks, versatile, mysterious and subtle, black still issues a note of warning that the woman wearing it may be unavailable. Think of Scarlett O’Hara dancing with Rhett in her mourning gown. Think of the provocative black-clad widow in “Zorba the Greek” who drove the men in her village to distraction (and not of the fact that they stoned her).

Interestingly, some believe that part of what inspired Coco Chanel to create the first little black dress were the uniforms worn in the orphanage where she lived as a girl and the fact that she was in mourning for her lover, Arthur Capel, when she sketched the short, drop-waisted black number that would become mother to them all for American Vogue in 1926.

When I’m traveling, I dress my black dress down by throwing my jacket or sweater over it, or up with big, bloused scarves that double as shawls. My black pants, skirt and leggings go anywhere during the day, topped by a simple blouse. To keep warm, I pile on layers, starting with my black leotard.

You can buy the components of a black traveling wardrobe almost anywhere, from Express to Ann Taylor, and J. Crew to CP Shades, because these days most ready-to-wear clothing comes in black synthetic or synthetic-and-cotton blends that can be folded into a suitcase compactly, unpacked with few wrinkles, washed in hotel room sinks and dried on a hanger.

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Chico’s, a Florida-based clothing manufacturer with retail shops in Santa Monica, Laguna Beach and Pasadena, has a line called the Slinky Travelers Collection with about 30 separate items (tank tops, pants, jackets and dresses) made of an acetate-Lycra blend, priced from $38 to $96. All come in black, though some are available in taupe, blue and eggplant purple for mixing and matching. And every piece in the line has been designed with comfort in mind so that, as Chico’s co-founder, Helene Gralnick, says, “You don’t look like you’ve slept in your clothes when you get off a plane, even though it would be good if you did.”

Chic, black, pricier separates for narrow youthful figures are available at BCBG, with five shops in West L.A. Ex Officio’s more outdoorsy Cruiser line that includes a black skirt, jumper, vest and pants made of a trade-marked polyester-cotton blend called Tarmac Twill can be found at REI and EMS for $68 to $78. Or you can stay at home and shop the travel-wear catalogs such as TravelSmith, which features wrinkle-resistant knit separates in black (among other colors) for $42 to $79. TravelSmith also offers a short-sleeved “indispensable black travel dress” in long and short lengths that slips on over the head, for $89 to $99.

Wherever you find it, just don’t leave home without a little black dress, which, as Chanel predicted, has “become the uniform for all women with taste.”

To find the Chico’s shop nearest to you, call (800) 222-4095; the BCBG in Santa Monica is (310) 656-8130. Information on Ex Officio travel wear is available at (800) 644-7303; and you can get a TravelSmith catalog by calling (800) 950-1600.

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This new column about women’s travel appears weekly. Spano, who joined the Travel staff recently, is a seasoned traveler who has freelanced widely. She will also write destination stories for Travel.


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