How does Fashion become modern, take that step away from the past and stride confidently into the future? As theorist and philosopher, Roland Barthes noted, fashion changes when events shift so decisively in the present that there is no going back to the past. The Great War changed everything for men and women, and it seemed that it was a woman, designing outside of Paris, in Deauville, was the one with the wit and wisdom to move fashion decisively into the new century. The War worked in favor of Coco Chanel—in absence of dyes, her clothes were neutral colors, in a time of labor shortage and fabric rationing, her clothes fitted the need for simplicity and lack of ostentation, while men were dying on the Western Front. In contrast, her early rival Paul Poiret suspended his business during the War and never recovered from his enforced pause. He patriotically designed uniforms for French soldiers and neglected his war-time fashion business. Unable to keep up with the collective changes in the minds of his customers, he faded away, drifting into the distance as yesterday’s fashion king. As the writer, Jean Cocteau, put it in one of his little sketches: “Poiret s’éloigne Chanel arrive.

Slouching fashionably down the streets of the resorts, free of the erect corset, in 1915, the new fashionistas followed Coco Chanel from Deauville to her new shop at yet another refuge for the wealthy, Biarritz, eagerly buying her middy blouses, borrowed from sailors and gladly paying a high price for the privilege. Chanel changed the name of the fashion game by charging high prices, not for exquisite materials, her materials were cheap, not for hours of intensive labor, her clothes were simple to make, but for design itself, for innovation, for a particular style that only she could create with her talent and quick and perceptive eye for what could be stolen from men and adapted for women. Her luxe caché transformed schoolboy uniforms into exquisitely crafted garments speaking a semiotic language discernible to those who were seeking something utterly modern. As Bonnie English in her book, A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries, From Catwalk to Sidewalk, 

“Increased democratization of fashion resulted in the 1920s, when three preconditions were met: a competitive pricing system, advanced manufacturing technologies which produced goods that were well made and designed, and an effective distribution network. It is widely acknowledged that the increase in the number of “multiple stores” or chain stores in the 1920s was rivaling the number of department stores, which seemed to have reached their numerical peak. Moreover, the consumer focus of these chain stores was aimed at the increasingly large population and prosperous working class. This new means of fashion distribution targeted all sectors of society in much the same way as the department stores had done in the nineteenth century. The chain stores offered open displays of merchandise, variable sizing, self-selection and fixed prices. A new niche marketing approach appealed directly to working women, whose numbers had increased dramatically and who were enjoying their new financial independence. Significantly, this reflected an important development in social history..Undoubtedly, Gabrielle Chanel, better known as “Coco,” was one of the most influential female designers of this transitional period—a woman who rose out of a working-class background. She was the first haute couture designer to consider the functional aspects of dress, rationally deconstructing women’s dress through cut, fabric, and simplicity of design. Her work deliberately disrupted and overturned social class indicators in so far as it discarded the dominant and overturned social class indicators in so far as it discarded the dominant concept of conspicuous consumption as a means of achieving status. Her relentless promotion of working-class attire in the early years led to a social paradox, where “dressing down” became the epitome of elitist fashion. The foundations of uniqueness originality, stereotyping, and sobriety in haute couture were questioned by mass-production techniques and the rise of prêt-à-porter. While the bastions of haute couture had been protected and defended for fifty years by the quality of materials and garment construction as well as the techniques employed in their work many haute couture designers no longer applied these criterial in their workrooms.

English noted Chanel’s use of cheap fabrics and materials that were unknown to haute couture. She noted that when Chanel moved into her new shop at the now famous address, 21 Rue Cambon, her lease forbade the making of dresses. However, since Jersey was not considered a fabric for dresses, she was able to make “dresses” out of jersey and not violate the terms of her lease. She used the strongly patterned tartans, a historically Scottish fabric that had been outlawed after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, along with the carrying of weapons and the playing of bagpipes. It not until 1782 that the bans were lifted but by that time, the Highland culture was disrupted and nearly destroyed. King George IV and his daughter, Queen Victoria made peace with Scottish traditions, making tartans popular again. Along with tartan plaids, Chanel also adopted the most English of fabrics, tweed from Carlisle. This stiff material which did not crease was perfect for her suits. These new fabrics were not only less expensive but were also sturdy and flexible enough to fit conveniently into the new life styles of women who were active and busy with jobs in the business world. 

By thinking beyond the accepted paths of dressmaking, Chanel accomplished nothing less than a take over of cutting edge fashion. She broke rules that, while the idea of delicate fabrics and elegant and expensive materials would continue, Chanel presented haute couture with an alternative for design. The difference in her approach was to invest significance in cut and shape rather than in the inherent value of intrinsically fragile and inconvenient fabrics, intended to demonstrate the wearer’s disregard of cost. English discussed the technological and manufacturing consequences of Chanel’s innovations:

Devoid of superficial trimmings, these early tricot garments designed by Chanel exuded an effortless style, which emphasized comfort and ease of wearing and epitomized the liberation of youth. There was no stiffness or defined shape. her two-piece suits feature a slightly gathered skirt and a long jacket, with the material looking lime and quite unremarkable! It was exactly this commonplace appearance that seemed so revolutionary at the time. Chanel used jersey on such a massive scale that she opened her own factory at Asnières, initially called Tricots Chanel and the later Tissus Chanel. Other “popular” or non-elitist materials were incorporated into Chanel’s haute couture collections, such as tartan, quilting and the synthetic fabric rayon—called artificial silk. The manufacture of artificial silk was perfected in the1920s, and was eminently suitable for Chanel’s “little black dress” because of its excellent draping qualities. Similarly, when the supply of expensive furs was interrupted, Chanel  “turned to the more modest furs, like beaver and rabbit, transforming the shortage into an opportunity for greater inventiveness and style.” This broke “the bounds of hierarchy and tradition,: since “even a woman of modest means could afford a fur stole, or a fur wrap of fox, won casually across the shoulders.” 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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