Since their inception in the first half of the twentieth century, best-dressed lists have become a popular barometer of international style. By publishing best-dressed lists in the mainstream media, fashion editors and style arbiters have established a steady market for information about the wardrobes, grooming, and comportment of smartly dressed men and women.
Perhaps the most eminent best-dressed list was the “International Best-Dressed Poll,” the brainchild of Eleanor Lambert (1903 – 2003), a New York City publicist considered the doyenne of fashion publicity. Lambert first penned the list in 1940 as a press release for the New York Dress Institute, a trade organization she helped establish to stimulate dress sales during World War II. Lambert claimed that her list was patterned after an anonymous poll of the world’s ten best-dressed women issued by the Paris couture starting in the 1920s.
Lambert’s annual list became a widely heralded tally of the world’s most beautifully dressed people, derided as frivolous, yet eagerly anticipated. She coordinated the poll by canvassing a coterie of fashion insiders to nominate the contenders, and then revealed the winners in a press release to the media. Lambert elevated repeat winners to her own fashion Hall of Fame. Finally, at nearly 100 years old, she stopped coordinating her celebrated list in 2002.
Another important best-dressed list has been the domain of Richard Blackwell. In 1958, Blackwell established a line of evening gowns under the label “Mr. Blackwell,” which attracted high-profile buyers like Nancy Reagan and Zsa Zsa Gabor. In 1960, American Weekly magazine, a national Sunday newspaper supplement, hired him to compile a list of Hollywood’s best- and worst-dressed stars. Mr. Blackwell’s list became notorious for his willingness to criticize icons like Brigitte Bardot and Queen Elizabeth II. The lists established Blackwell as a popular arbiter of taste, and he continues to issue his controversial fashion pronouncements as of the early 2000s.
Marella and Gianni Agnelli
C. Z. Guest
John Hay “Jock” Whitney
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor
Given the visibility of Lambert’s and Blackwell’s lists, fashion editors were inspired to publish best-dressed lists of their own. Among the publications that have published, or continue to publish, best-dressed lists are Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, and Prima. People magazine publishes an annual special issue featuring best- and worst-dressed celebrities, while the annual Academy Awards show has spawned its own best-dressed subcate-gory. Other best-dressed lists have been printed by non-fashion publications like Fortune magazine and the New York Post.
Best-dressed lists allow readers to imagine that a winning profile is open to all, when in fact the top spots invariably go to wealthy people in the public eye: film stars and fashion industry or society figures. But the lists continue to fascinate as they impart lessons in style, self-presentation, and the ineffable quality of individual chic.
Blackwell, Richard. Mr. BlactwelFs Worst: 30 Years of Fashion Fiascos. New York: Pharos Books, 1991.
Haugland, H. Kristina, and Dilys E. Blum. Best Dressed: Fashion from the Birth of Couture to Today. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1997.
Nemy, Enid. “Eleanor Lambert, Empress of Fashion, Dies at 100.” The New York Times, 8 October 2003.
Wilson, Eric. “Eleanor Lambert Celebrates an American Fashion Century.” WWD 186, no. 26 (6 August 2003).