Coco Chanel, like her customers, invented herself, remade herself on her own terms and used striking fashion designs to bring about this transformation. A chic outfit can disguise many character flaws and one of the remarkable aspects of Chanel was what she had to overcome to make her mark. She was provincial and poor, she had vision but no financial capital, and to fund her goals, she became a kept woman, turning the position of mistress into a business opportunity. She was fortunate, because, as she said, the time rose up to greet her. In the 1920s, a woman could be forgiven for being a mistress, especially if she were well dressed. The decade presided over an end of royalty, aristocracy, nobility and the rise of self-made men and women. Martha Banta wrote of these remarkable women, who defined their own lives in “Coco, Zelda, Sara, Daisy and Nicole. Accessories for New Ways of Being a Woman.” Banta wrote,

“.. the Chanel style was derived from the ability to negotiate her way in a world run by men; that a women once dependent on financial support from various lovers had to escape tne label of ‘kept woman;’ that the neat little hats, casual slacks, easy-going pullovers, gorgeously fake jewelry, and entrancing perfumes were inspired by the life she had had to live as well as the one she chose for herself..One of the ways that war ‘helped’ Chanel resulted from the alacrity by which women from ‘outside’ of society came ‘inside’ once the boundaries set against them melted away..Adrift in the early years of the twentieth century, Chanel recognized the relation between the woman’s position and the clothes she wore. As she described them, ‘All these ladies were badly dressed, in their body armor, with their bosoms out, their behinds jutting out too, bound in at the waist until they were almost cut in two. They were dressed to the teeth.’ Chanel decided never to dress in the flamboyant, ostentatious ‘luxury’ that declared a woman to be man’s possession..Indeed by the 1920s, Chanel achieved fame, fortune and social élan by creating a style (available from the House of Chanel at great expense) that insisted on a woman’s independence from moneyed relations with men. The Chanel look..affirmed classlessness through the eradication of the sexual categories made overt by belle epoque attire..”

Banta made an interesting point about Chanel erasing the “kept woman” from fashion as one who could be easily identified by her costume. By taking already existing shapes and forms and by turning the simple geometry into paradigms of fashion, she enabled women–any woman–to be chic and to be chic and well dressed was a pass to the new society that was defined by looking good and by being fashionable. By the end of the 1920s, Chanel had established herself as a fashion star but, starting in the mid-twenties, she began to design the clothes that would not only immortalize her and put the final stake in the heart of Paul Poiret but also become immortal garments in their own right.

Axel Madsen explained the origin of the iconic “little black dress” of 1926, nothing that “..Poiret was never accepted as a social equal to the ladies he dressed. Chic, however, enthroned Chanel. Gabrielle answered Poiret’s multicolored splendor with her famous “little black dress.” Women had worn black only as a sign of bereavement; Chanel made it a fashionable color women might wear anytime. In one version of how she invented the little black dress, she was at a gala opening at the Opéra when, during the intermission, she leaned over the railing of her box and watched the women in vibrant Poiret fringes of beads and feathers. The slight gave her the idea of her enduring little black dress. In another retelling, it was the death of Boy Capel that made her say, ‘I’m going to put the whole world in mourning for him.’” 

It is interesting to note that by 1926, Chanel was confident enough to refer to one of her early lovers, Arthur Capel (married to another woman when he died) and her first financial backer. Lisa Chaney noted that Chanel’s was the last generation to be aware of la grande horizontale (the famous and public prostitute to famous men) and their ambivalent place/non-place in society. “Gabrielle eschewed the path of the courtesan and became an irrégulière, a mistress, entirely dependent upon her lover. Her rejection of the courtesan’s jewel-encrusted path was significant. Over time, she would admire and be influenced by them, but she would also strive to distance herself from their glamorous dependence. She was groping her way toward an idea of self-determination that might bring her a more genuine autonomy. In one sense, the courtesan’s life was a heightened,more dramatic version of the usual power brokering that takes place in relations between men and women.”    

Once again Chanel’s timing was on the mark with her restrained suit and the masterstroke of the black dress. Paul Poiret, offended by Chanel’s impoverished look, attempted a comeback with his signature dresses which seemed, to Chanel and her followers, to be old fashioned and de trop—too much. Black was her reply to his use of bright colors and elaborate outfits, but more importantly, black was the new color, rapidly gaining acceptance among women. The first black dress designed by Chanel was long sleeved and fell just below the knee, and, with the exceptions of the two v-shaped drapes, one to the waist and one to the hem, the dress was unadorned. American Vogue magazine described the revolution laconically: “The frock that all the world will wear is model 817 of black crepe de chine. The bodice blouses slightly at the front and sides and has a tight bolero at the back. Especially chic is the arrangement of tiny tucks which cross in front. Imported by Saks.” Eventually, the dress would be, according to Vogue, like a “Ford,” the reliable Model T, that would never go out of style. Basic and utilitarian, the black dress became timeless and could be styled and restyled to suit the era or the occasion. 

Chanel’s class is suit was less or a shock to the fashion system and more of a modification of a trend that already existed. Women had been wearing male styled clothing for some decades, and, especially during the war, they had worn copies of male uniforms. As Kathleen Morgan Drowne and Patrick Huber wrote, “During the 1920s, women’s suits contained many of the same features found in men’s clothing styles. Women’s suits were practical but elegant, usually made of wool, with straight, hip-length suit jackets worn over straight matching skirts, and typically came in the standard colors of navy, brown, tan or black, possibly with white pinstripes. Jackets might be single or double breasted, or ‘edge to edge,’ which meant that the two front panels just barely came together and were fastened with a single metal link button (like a cufflink). Skirt silhouettes were very narrow, although they might include box or knife pleats. Coco Chanel introduced what has since become known as the classic Chanel suit: a boxy jacket trimmed with contrasting ribbon or braid, worn over a straight skirt. The jacket was lined with the same material as the matching blouse and the jacket and skirt were made of soft jersey or tweed. Che Chanel suit was appropriately accessorized with a matching scarf or some expensive costume jewelry..” 

Once again, she was borrowing a men’s look, this time from her current boyfriend the Duke of Westminister. In 1921, Chanel was inspired to make the suit in tweed, the favorite fabric worn by English gentlemen at their country estates. By 1924, Chanel had selected a Scottish factory to make tweed for her, often bringing the weavers leaves and earth from the Scottish countryside to give them an idea of the kinds of muted earth tones she sought. The result was to produce a suit for women that was upscale–based on the attire of the country squires and the land-owning gentry but feminized with braid trim and metallic buttons. Chanel eliminated the collar and cropped to scale the cumbersome long jackets of other designers more suited to women’s slighter heights. The straightness of the skirt was relieved by a slight A line.

Like the suit, wearing the dress demanded a body like that of Chanel herself—small breasted and slim hipped—the shape of a very young woman or a young man. The suit jacket had no shoulder pads and there were also no darts to accommodate a bust. Her garments were hostile to the middle-aged woman or a woman who was voluptuous or a woman with some shape to her bust and curves to her thighs. 

Chanel left it up to those who copied her clothes and merchandized her look to the middle-class women to reshape her designs for the matronly figure. The trend towards slenderness predated the war as women became more actively engaged in vigorous exercises from lively ballroom dancing or golf games or participating in the brand-new sport of skiing. This athleticism meant that women had to be fit and healthy but they should not look strong and muscular. Fashion illustrators Georges Barbier and Georges Lepape used their thin-lined stylized drawings to imagine thin-lined long legged women, draped in clinging fabrics with vaguely masculine details. All Coco Chanel had to do was to step into these pre-determined standards which needed signature garments. It was she who gave women a reason to diet their entire lives.  

The genius of the designs of Chanel is that she allowed women to invent themselves. Unlike designers whose fashions made visual statements of their artistic genius, Chanel’s distinctive shapes were taken over by women, who then adorned the basic outline to their own liking. In the end, despite the simplicity of the actual iconic clothes themselves, the results were elaborate and complicated, indicating that the designer understood the New Woman very well as an individual who wanted to make herself. The New Woman wore Chanel as a collaborator. Chanel was a designer who created a universal set of forms so in tune with the twentieth century that the basic geometry has remained the same and has defied change. 

A paradigm establishes a design that is satisfaction itself, apparently inevitable and so appropriate that it is hard to imagine Chanel ever going out of style. Once any woman puts on a Chanel sweater or a Chanel jacket or a Chanel suit or the so-called “little black dress” she also puts herself in charge and can activate the empty spaces Chanel has given her, draping a necklace here and placing a pin there or slipping on a bracelet or tying a patterned scarf. Suddenly the Chanel template, the Ford, the uniform becomes the New Woman who has designed herself and expressed herself as a unique invention.

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