“My time was ready for me, waiting, all I had to do was come on the scene,” said Coco Chanel. As her biographer, Linda Simon pointed out in 1913, changes in women’s fashions had progressed from the avant-garde world of the Wiener Werkstätte and its artists and designers to the female consumers of the Galeries Lafayette. “..fashion magazines already showed a new silhouette: slim, with fluid lines, in soft fabrics. These magazines addressed riding, camping, and skiing. They danced energetically, and each issue of the upscale women’s magazine Femina featured instructions for new dances–the turkey trot, ‘le pas du double boston,’ the one-step and the tango. In 1919, the year Chanel woke to fame, drawings of designs by her competitors which were appearing in French fashion magazines all featured the same look as her won: trim and narrow. Fashion plates by illustrators such as George Lepape and Georges Barbier depicted slender young women with impossibly long legs and cropped hair, wearing low-waisted dressed in muted tones like grey and beige, and in fluid fabrics like silk and jersey. ‘The sensational novelty of the season almost everywhere,’ reported Vogue, ‘is the effect of a man’s short or shirt collar with a collar, and this collar is of infinite variety.’ But those other designers who helped create the garçonne look did not embody the new woman as Chanel did; she  not only designed for her generation, she wore her own designs everywhere and the outfits looked. stunning on her. She did not liberate w omen from the constriction of corsets–that credit goes to Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet who had long before rejected the hourglass figure by designing soft, flowing, drapey dresses. But while they created costumes for women to pose in, Chanel created outfits to live in, clothing that seemed to caress a body that was–ideally–svelte and sexy.” 

As a fashion designer, Paul Poiret was wedged between those last lovely decades before the Great War and the shock of the War itself. What made Poiret famous was that he took a giant leap and turned the reform movements into fashion for the mainstream wealthy customer, and, in the process, he made all other clothes look old-fashioned and out of date. Poiret did not attempt the alter the historical function of the dress—to advertise wealth and taste—but he took pride in freeing his customers from corsets and rehabilitating undergarments. With his slim wife as his source of inspiration, he made clothes that only a very narrow woman would wear. Inspired by the exotic costumes of the Ballets Russes, Poiret brought the harem pants from the 1910 production of Schéhérazade into the parlor of the manor house and dared women to wear them at dinner parties. In these gauzy and voluminous pants, a woman could finally walk comfortably, something that cannot be said for another Poiret innovation, the hobble skirt, which literally hobbled the woman, forcing her to take tiny steps. In style for ten years until 1915, this dangerous garment caused women to trip and fall, and it was almost impossible to step up into an automobile or a street car. 

Clearly Poiret enjoyed experimenting—sometimes maliciously–with rather exotic garments, such as the equally famous lampshade dress, as if he were daring adventurous women to follow his lead no matter how absurd the silhouette. 

Paul Poiret can be credited by taking that first step in modern design by creating clothes that eliminated the corset, stressed a long, lean vertical line that more or less followed the natural contour of the female body. He pulled in the horizontal appendages from the crinoline to the bustle, threw away the squeezed waist and uplifted chest, relaxed the materials and used soft and flowing fabrics festooned with dangling décor. But as modern as he was in his own time, the Great War would change women and alter their habits of dress in a way that would leave Paul Poiret behind and opened the door to the success of Coco Chanel.

 In 1912, at the height of the craze for the hobble skirt, opportunity drove Coco Chanel to Deauville, a French port beloved by the well to do English and Americans for its racing and its gambling. In this town of multinational sailors, English tailoring and British vacationers, she opened a boutique and competed with the Parisian branches of the established fashion houses also in the resort town. Ignoring the middle-aged matrons, Chanel, financially backed by her lover, “Boy” Capel, aimed at the younger women who had already adopted the easier to wear clothes based on male attire. Observing the sailors, Chanel designed wide legged pants and pull over sweaters for women and she ended hard to clean impractical dresses when she decided to do something with inappropriate jersey, a material that was comfortable and lightweight but that was used—scandalously–for men’s underwear. 

As Mary McAuliffe wrote in When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Chanel, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Their Friends: “The war imposed its own constraints on Chanel, much as it did on Poiret and other Paris couturiers, most of whom virtually or completely closed down for the duration. Chanel remained for a time in Deauville, where she worked with jersey, a readily available fabric more commonly used in underwear. Using this, she continued to create clean-lined and comfortable clothing, much of it inspired by menswear. The summer residents of Deauville, cut off from Paris by the German advance, were delighted to supplement their wardrobes with Chanel fashions, which were as practical as they were attractive. Soon Chanel— who by this time was earning enough to operate without Boy Capel’s or anyone’s financial support— moved to Biarritz, where she opened her first maison de couture and took up residence in a villa that she bought, for cash, at the war’s end. Abandoning the waistline, as she did, and shortening skirts to allow more freedom of movement (as well as a shocking glimpse of ankle), her clothing freed women at a time when increasing social emancipation as well as the demands of war called for exactly what she was providing. “One world was ending,” she later told Paul Morand; “another was about to be born. I was in the right place; an opportunity beckoned, I took it.” She also took the shears to her long hair, freeing women from yet one more burdensome style. It was a bold move, and one that other women quickly imitated. As Paul Poiret later remarked, “We ought to have been on guard against that boyish head. It was going to give us every kind of shock, and produce, out of its little conjuror’s hat, gowns and coiffures and jewels and boutiques.”

Given that wool was rationed during the War, jersey, made of wool, was as close as one could get to a so-called respectable fabric. Jersey, in contrast to the delicate fabrics of the past, was available, stalwart and tough, and it draped over the woman’s body, skimming the curves and hugging the shape. Better yet jersey was cheap, no one wanted it, and it was easy to fit and therefore to sew, requiring few seams. As the heir to Chanel’s Empire, Karl Langerfeld, later said, “Jersey was men’s underwear material and it was much more shocking in those days because women weren’t supposed to know that men wore underwear.” 

In these early years, Chanel was on the margins but with her eye on becoming known as an innovator, while she experimented in ways very different from Paul Poiret. Poiret, as did his predecessors, regarded fashion design as costume design. Although his silhouettes were slim and rectangular, the dress was such a statement of his desires and fantasies that every outfit was about Paul Poiret. The woman was lost in his visions, his designs were attractive visions to be sure but they were concepts, not clothing. Chanel designed with the actual woman in mind: how this woman moved, walked, sat and stood, what this real woman needed to wear to be comfortable, distinctive, and, above all, modern. It was Chanel who seemed to grasp the difference between “new”—a marketing technique Poiret understood quite well—and “modern”—a mood and an attitude possessed by women and understood by Coco.

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