The Myth of Chanel and the 1920s: III - A Slender Pair of Shoulder Straps

The editorial commended Chanel's reliance on an uncluttered natural beauty, with a dress that showed only a slender pair of shoulder straps holding it up.

The way that this is written, there is an implication of the slender pair of shoulder straps being part of an innovative uncluttered beauty.  However, bared arms and shoulders had been part of ball dress (the most formal evening dress) for a long time.
From Le Moniteur de la Mode, February 1855
At first this was achieved with very short sleeves and a broad, low neckline, as the armscye was commonly placed on the upper arm; as the armscye moved up to the top of the shoulder, the sides of the neckline moved as well, exposing the arm to a greater extent.

Ball dresses, The Woman's World, 1890, p. 131
The shoulder straps of these gowns were usually constructed in one with the bodice, but one can also find examples of delicate, applied shoulder straps.  These delicate straps became even more common in the 1910s - often accompanied by gauzy and short undersleeves, making Vogue's caption simply a description of which type of straps Chanel's dress had, rather than a statement of a new innovation in evening dress.

Evening dress, unknown designer, "Couturiers design for afternoon and evening", Vogue, November 1916; NYPL 818456
No designer is completely one-note - if they were, their houses would not remain in business.  So while Chanel is known today for this "uncluttered natural beauty", Harper's Bazaar also pointed out in 1922 that "Chanel has made the mode curiously rich", and that "this season, the Chanel collection is characterized by intricate and costly embroideries that spread themselves over gowns and wraps".  At the same time, designers had been aiming for a more "natural", simple look from the end of the 1900s - this could take up its own post, really, so it must suffice to point to Poiret's "1811" designs.

The statement that one of Chanel's 1919 models had an "uncluttered natural beauty" is clearly factual.  I am not debating its accuracy for that specific dress.  Nicholson's implication, however, is that this is significant to Chanel's overall taste and the reasons for her success, an early predictor of what she would become known for and how she would triumph.  This is the common (yet inaccurate) view of Chanel: that she burst onto the scene with a newfound simplicity in all her designs that made her an instant success.

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