The Myth of Chanel and the 1920s: Introduction

 In November 1919 pictures of Gabrielle Chanel's chemise dress had filled the pages of Vogue: 'A gown that swathes the figure in straight soft folds, falling at the sides in little cascades.'  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 subsequent single-page spread devoted to Madame Lucile's chiffons and to Poiret's plumes seemed to be included simply out of respect for the old masters and appeared fearfully outdated. ... Once the matchless pace setter of individuality in fashion, Poiret snorted that her clothes resembled 'Cages lacking birds. Hives lacking bees.'

One other French designer, Madeleine Vionnet, managed to survive the transition through the war years and become part of the revolution in fashion. Vionnet cleverly amalgamated a still lingering desire for femininity with the wish to dress without the restricting comfort of corsetry. ... But it was the androgyny promoted by Chanel that dominated women's fashion in Europe in 1919.

During the war she discovered the versatility of jersey cloth as used by stable lads for shirts for training sessions, and began to make sweaters and waistless dresses for women from the same supple fabric.  The ornate Edwardian costume that according to a scornful Chanel had 'stifled the body's architecture' started to disappear.  Chanel was after 'moral honesty' in the way women presented themselves.  She had gauged the time for voicing these feelings to perfection.  ...

The flamboyant colors of Paul Poiret's pre-war designs and the theatricality of Bakst's influential costumes for the Ballets Russes suddenly seemed tawdry and overdone. ... A look of luxury was achievable through the severity of simplicity.  Expensive poverty was the aim.  She dared to suggest that clothes themselves had ceased to matter and that it was the individual who counted.

She cut her hair short 'because it annoyed me'.  Everyone cut off their hair in imitation. ... The British aristocracy came to Paris to be close to the source of inspiration. ... As hem lengths rose and flowerpot hats moulded themselves to the side of the head, a voluntary simplification of clothing spread across a wide spectrum of society.

- "Expectation", The Great Silence, Juliet Nicholson (Grove Press: 2009), pp. 173-175 

Much of the research in this book is excellent: Nicholson has access to a number of personal memoirs, which she uses to embroider the straightforward historical narrative.  I highly recommend it to those interested in the very beginning of the Jazz Age, the first two years after the end of the war.  However, when it comes to dress, I find that the author has been completely suckered by the Cult of Chanel.

It's quite understandable.  The general idea of Chanel as the reigning goddess of 1920s fashion, creating the extraordinary new styles based strictly on her own taste, women everywhere immediately rushing to join her as she had tapped into a near-universal desire only spurned by old fogeys trying to hold onto the past, is prevalent in the study of fashion history.  I went along with this myth for a long time, tempered slightly by the understanding that history is always a bit messier than people generally make it.  But as I have been performing my own research into early twentieth century fashion, by the time I read the above excerpt I had learned enough to be somewhere between "disappointed" and "livid".

Was Chanel a popular couturier of the 1920s?  Yes.

Did she influence the constantly-changing tide of fashion?  Perhaps.

Were she and Vionnet the only designers to escape the 1910s?  Demonstrably not.

Did Gabrielle Chanel single-handedly create a new vision for a dawning age of modernity? Please.

Working on More Than Just Flappers has given me quite a lot of feelings on the subject of the often-misrepresented progress of early twentieth century dress, but there is only so much that can be said on the topic in a short time frame.  So please join me in a continuing series of posts in which I will deconstruct the many myths about Chanel that appear in quick succession in the excerpt above.  Your eyes may be fully opened!


  1. I'll be looking forward to reading all of your upcoming posts pertaining to Chanel!

    1. There should be many. I've written the first few, and I'm still not through the first paragraph. I'm glad you're interested!

  2. I'd be interested to see how Chanel was adapted by the older generation of fashionistas, the ones with the money to buy expensive frocks, but inmany cases without the figures to wear some of the newer style (I still remember the photos of poor heavy-set formerly corseted grandes dames attempting to wear Poiret's knife pleated Grecian styles!!). Both my grandmothers were in their 30s and 40s during the 1920/1930s, and both had bodies particularly well suited to Edwardian fashion, and even post WWI era clothes. But once the skirts climbed to the knees, they seemed to retire from the camera's view altogether. It's the rare middle aged and older woman who can wear a straight shift, after decades of childbearing!

    Thanks for this reflection. There must have been so many fine French designers who were lost in the wake of the Chanel craze?
    Auntie Nan

    1. When I was working on my presentation, I realized just how many designers were forgotten and how thoroughly they were forgotten due to Chanel's inflated reputation. It's amazing!


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