It was in the 1920s that Coco Chanel perfected her distinctive line for her timeless and simple clothes for women—long and lean, like Paul Poiret’s silhouettes to be sure, but her outlines were scrupulously hard-edged, offset with ropes of peals and studded with inventive pins and perfumed with her own brand name, Chanel No. 5. Based on working class outfits, the simple suits, appropriated from men, the costume jewelry and the studied casualness were all elements that reminded those who could read the “fashion system” that she was blurring the distinctions between class lines. Wealthy women gave up their fine jewelry for expensive costume jewelry and gladly wore well-crafted and beautifully designed garments purloined from laborers. Even the sun tan Chanel popularized can be interpreted as a forcing the color of the peasants, harvesting in the fields, upon people of leisure, changing the semiotics of the “tan,” into a symbolic capital of wealth and abundant leisure. It was not that her fashion insulted her customers, but her clothes insinuated the end of the ruling class and its ostentatious display of power. 

In a time when women were shedding the historic signs of femininity, they were simultaneously donning the costume of masculinity and identifying with all things male at least in terms of appearance. As a hat designer, her first fashion venture, Chanel popularized the Garçonne haircut, perfect for her cloche hats, which worked best with the severe suits. Women were now walking like men, projecting their hips forward at the pelvis and placing their hands in their pockets like careless schoolboys. It was fashion charivari, a completely upended world of discarded conventions. To add to the irony of her louche designs, any woman could copy her simple garments and democratize fashion while at the same time adding to her fame. 

In 1925 a new design style, Art Deco, was introduced. This new trend, based on Cubism, is discussed in another segment, but, for the purposes of the discussion of Chanel, we can note that Art Deco is a style of straight lines and rigid constructions. In this same year, 1925, Chanel introduced her now classic suit, with the cropped cardigan style open jacket with a modest trim to offset the shape and details of the design perched above a slightly flared skirt. Continuing her use of masculine fabrics, the suit was made of tweed. Unlike the clothes she designed previously, which were mere fashion changes, this simple suit was a paradigm shift. After this suit, all other suits for women had to either copy it or refer to it or to attempt to develop a different version of what is known universally as the “Chanel suit.” 

Like Maya Lin’s equally significant “wall” for the Viet Nam Veterans, the Chanel Suit immediately evokes a mental image that is unique and distinctive and is recognized everywhere. Equally important was the elegant black dress invented in 1926. Whether or not the designer chose black to signify the death of her lover or not is less important than the fact that she made black a color for women. Traditionally, in the previous century, black was the color worn by the male who was out and about in public, strolling down Parisian boulevards or striding up the lanes of London’s financial district. The men wore black, which was established early in the century by Beau Brummel as being the color of elegance, and black also possessed the virtue of being able to hide the dirt and grime of the city and its pollutions. 

Women had worn black mainly for mourning but Chanel shifted the semiotic meaning of black to what the color meant for men. A black suit looked elegant as a tuxedo, just as a black dress for women could be dressed down or dressed up. The black dress could go anywhere and do anything. It was as Vogue magazine wrote “Here is a Ford, signed Chanel—the frock that all the world will wear.” In other words, the black dress was a dress that was for every woman, a dress that the publication also predicted would become a “uniform” by a woman for all women. 

By the end of the 1920s, the age of tne Garçonne or the New Woman came to an end, not because she was accepted and became part of the norm in society but because a Great Depression ended the party of les années folles and silenced the music of the Jazz Age. But progress had been made. In the Weimar Republic, Elsa Herrmann wrote “This is the New Woman” in 1929. Herrmann began her article by describing the woman of the past and her goals, ending with “ The woman of yesterday was intent on the future; the woman of the day before yesterday was focused on the past. For the latter, in other words, there was no higher goal than honoring the achievements of the ‘good old days.’ In their name she strove to ward off everything that could somehow have disturbed her accepted and recognized way of life. In stark contrast, the woman of today is oriented exclusively toward the present. That which is decisive for her, not that which should be or should have been according to tradition.” Herrmann then switched to italics and emphasized: “The new woman has set herself the goal of proving in her work and deeds that the representatives of the female sex are not second-class persons existing only in dependence and obedience but are fully capable of satisfying the demands of their positions in life. The proof of her personal value with the proof of the value of her sex therefore the maxims ruling the life of every single woman of our times, for the sake of herself and for the sake of the whole…”

Everything the New Woman represented began to erode in the 1930s, dulled by the economic crisis of the Depression, which cut into her financial independence, and crushed by Fascism in Germany and poverty in America. In France, fashion could continue and Chanel could go on, but the garçonne who made her reputation faded into history, leaving behind iconic garments invented by the fashion designer.

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