Chanel Defines Modern Women’s Fashion

Coco Chanel adapted British taste in menswear to women’s clothing, creating a couture style that would define the modern woman of elegance throughout the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

World War I was an important dividing line between the old and the new in many aspects of social life; it was decisive, for example, in women’s high fashion, or “haute couture.” Corsets, boning, long skirts, and huge hats gave way to simpler, less confining designs, just as upper-class restrictions on women gave way in many other aspects of life. There were some attempts to reinstate old ideas of fashion by modifying them slightly and presenting them as a new look, but these did not take hold. The tone set in the 1920’s thus shaped fashion attitudes across all classes for much of the twentieth century. Coco Chanel has become identified with this change. Fashion designers;Coco Chanel[Chanel]
Fashion design
[kw]Chanel Defines Modern Women’s Fashion (1920’s)
[kw]Women’s Fashion, Chanel Defines Modern (1920’s)[Womens Fashion, Chanel Defines Modern (1920s)]
[kw]Fashion, Chanel Defines Modern Women’s (1920’s)
Fashion designers;Coco Chanel[Chanel]
Fashion design
[g]France;1920’s: Chanel Defines Modern Women’s Fashion[04880]
[c]Fashion and design;1920’s: Chanel Defines Modern Women’s Fashion[04880]
Chanel, Coco
Wertheimer, Pierre
Capel, Arthur
Grosvenor, Hugh
Sert, Misia
Cocteau, Jean

Although not the first designer to inaugurate each element in the wardrobe of the so-called New Woman, New Woman Chanel did create the ensemble epitomizing the new century. By taking many of the same steps that had revolutionized men’s fashions in the early nineteenth century (adapting sporting clothes for general wear, applying lower-class functionality to clothing for the rich, and using limited color across the entire wardrobe) and especially by adapting menswear for women, Chanel offered women clothing that spoke of ease, independence, and elegance.

Financially backed and advised by Arthur Capel, who was also her lover, Chanel first found success in the wartime environment of refugees and profiteers in Deauville and Biarritz, France. She sold looser, shorter, more practical dresses of “poor” fabrics, such as woolen jersey, at exorbitant prices. After the war, she concentrated her efforts in Paris, where both she and her fashions captured the look of la garçonne, the French boy-girl known in the United States as the flapper. Chanel designed clothes for young, active women with bobbed hair and athletic, androgynous bodies.

Chanel’s simple clothes of knit fabrics, ingeniously cut and precisely tailored, permitted unheard-of freedom of movement. For day and evening wear, simple chemises without waists or busts required few or no undergarments. Suits adapted from British men’s sportswear came with functional pockets in both shirt and jacket. Hems were short for both day and night. At Chanel’s studios, decoration gave way to functional purity, in keeping with Art Deco standards. She rejected ornamentation in favor of cut, and she restricted color to the basics—navy, beige, and, especially, black. In 1925, she introduced “the little black dress” for evening. It was so simple, so pared to essentials, that the editor of Vogue magazine compared it to the Ford automobile—one model, exquisitely crafted as a uniform for all. Elegance was now a matter of cut and, above all, attitude.

Chanel’s personal history was so colorful that it has sometimes detracted from the study and appraisal of her professional contributions. What is clear, however, is that Chanel was uniquely positioned to exploit the changes under way in the 1910’s and 1920’s. Of lower-class origins herself, she took advantage of the economic dislocation that occurred after the war to associate with the rich and the avant-garde. Beginning frankly as an irrégulière, a kept woman, with a preference for British men of wealth, she exploited her supporters financially and socially while borrowing fashion concepts from their closets. Capel started her in the couture business, although an earlier admirer had set her up in her first shop as a milliner. Capel also introduced her to British tailoring.

A liaison with a Russian grand duke in the early 1920’s brought with it Chanel’s decision to use embroidery and exotic furs and, perhaps, even her interest in perfumes. Between 1925 and 1931—the years of her well-publicized liaison with the wealthiest man in England, Hugh Grosvenor, the second duke of Westminster—she discovered tweeds, reemphasized menswear cuts, and draped day wear with ropes of real and fake jewels. Each season, her affairs were exposed by the gossip writers; each season, she revealed them herself on the runways.

In addition to clothing, jewels and perfumes were two areas developed by Chanel in the 1920’s. The gifts of jewelry that she received from Grosvenor were well known; one account attributes her interest in popularizing costume jewelry to her desire to wear her own wealth without appearing gauche. Chanel opened her jewelry studio in 1924, creating pieces to fill the space between real gems and cheap imitations. Although many of the designs still associated with her name—including long jeweled ropes and heraldic blazons—were designed during this time, it was actually the 1930’s that saw her greatest innovations. Of even greater long-term significance for the Chanel name was the creation of Chanel perfumes, beginning in 1921 with Chanel No. 5. Chanel No. 5[Chanel Number 5] Chanel No. 5 was not the first perfume to take advantage of advances in synthetic chemistry, but it was the first to use an aldehyde base, permitting greater intensity and stability of scent. Chanel played an important part in the design of the fragrance and its packaging but in 1924 turned over production and distribution—and most of the profits—to perfumer Pierre Wertheimer.

Chanel was a male-identified woman, and she had few female associates. The exception was Misia Sert. Sert began as a musician and artist’s model; as a result of her advantageous marriages and her irrepressible personality, by the 1920’s she was hostess to the liveliest of Parisian avant-garde circles. Chanel met Misia Sert in 1921 and through her came to associate with the luminaries of the art world: Sergei Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Pierre Reverdy, and Jean Cocteau. Cocteau, Jean Chanel was frequently very generous to artists in need, opening her home to them for extended periods or quietly bestowing on them the funds needed for their continuing productivity. She collaborated with Cocteau, designing costumes for a production of Antigone in 1923, for Diaghilev’s ballet Le Train Bleu in 1924, and again in 1926 for Cocteau’s Orphée (Orpheus, 1933).


Chanel certainly did not invent everything attributed to her during the 1920’s. She was not the first to bob her hair, dispose of her corset, shorten skirts, or design fragrances. She herself owed much to Paul Poiret, Poiret, Paul and many other designers were moving toward the creation of comfortable, boyish clothes during the decade. Much of Chanel’s overwhelming impact is due to her longevity; she was a major designer in Paris for almost sixty years, from 1915 until her death in 1971. She was enormously successful in financial terms, and she set a style in the 1920’s that other designers—and she herself—returned to for inspiration throughout the century. Furthermore, her designs, stressing simplicity as they did, could easily be copied and translated into ready-to-wear clothes. Thus Chanel’s fashion sense became a signature for women of all classes.

Few major designers of the second half of the twentieth century did not, at some time or other, pay homage to Chanel designs. For some, the homage became a principle underlying creativity; for others, it approached complete imitation. The impact Chanel designs had on the ready-to-wear market—and continued to have during the last decades of the twentieth century—was really an enlargement of an earlier phenomenon. Even during the 1920’s and 1930’s, Chanel’s designs encouraged “knockoffs.” Because of their streamlined simplicity and their standardization, they were easy to copy. Chanel was sanguine about this copying, feeling that it was inevitable. Through the ready-to-wear trade, the wardrobes of most women in Europe and the United States came to bear Chanel’s impress, and the elegance of the Parisian woman, her fashionable nonchalance and black, navy, and cream-colored basics set off by one or two remarkable accessories, still represents the elegance of Chanel. Chanel continues to be a major trendsetter even into the twenty-first century in the worlds of fragrance and fashion. Fashion designers;Coco Chanel[Chanel]
Fashion design

Further Reading

  • Charles-Roux, Edmonde. Chanel and Her World: Friends, Fashion, and Fame. Translated by Dan Wheeler. New York: Vendome Press, 2005. A rich and informative compendium of historical photographs of Chanel, her circle, and her society. Annotations provide sufficient information to serve as a visual biography of Chanel. Gives more attention to Chanel’s society than to her work. Too-brief coverage of Chanel after World War II. Index and partial biographical dictionary.
  • _______. Chanel: Her Life, Her World, and the Woman Behind the Legend She Herself Created. Translated by Nancy Amphoux. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. Generally considered to be the most reliable of the many biographies of Chanel. Like others, Charles-Roux is more interested in her life in society, including her affairs, than in her contributions as a designer. Good grasp of her personality.
  • De Marly, Diana. The History of Haute Couture, 1850-1950. London: B. T. Batsford, 1980. History of the beginnings of haute couture, with emphasis on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Interesting chapters on the organization and financial aspects of the couture industry and on clients and their wardrobe requirements. Chanel is dealt with primarily in chapter 9. Black-and-white illustrations; brief bibliography.
  • Galante, Pierre. Mademoiselle Chanel. Translated by Eileen Geist and Jessie Wood. Chicago: H. Regnery, 1973. Another biographer seduced by Chanel’s love affairs and the glitter of her circle; some attention to the business side of couture, the method of work in the salon. Strong grasp of the complexities of her personality.
  • Leymarie, Jean, with Catherine Hübschmann. Chanel. Translated by Jean-Marie Clarke. New York: Rizzoli, 1987. Purports to be an overview of the designs of Chanel in relation to the art of her age, although the connections made with pre-twentieth century art are occasionally fanciful. Perhaps more interested in art than in an analysis of Chanel’s oeuvre. Well illustrated.
  • Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. New York: Henry Holt, 1990. An update of the biography by Charles-Roux. With bibliography.
  • Mulvagh, Jane. Vogue History of Twentieth Century Fashion. London: Viking, 1988. Chronological arrangement of fashions in Vogue. The century is divided into segments of approximately six to nine years; each segment is introduced in a brief essay, and accounts of the individual years in fashion are given. Useful because so many other works are cavalier about the specific dates of fashion events. Copiously illustrated, but in small black-and-white reprints from the magazine.
  • Richards, Melissa. Chanel Key Collections. New York: Welcome Rain, 2000. An overview, with illustrations, of the major fashion collections developed by Coco Chanel during her career. Provides direct knowledge of Chanel’s work and innovations.
  • Steele, Valerie. Women of Fashion: Twentieth Century Designers. New York: Rizzoli, 1991. History of women in fashion, written from a contemporary feminist perspective, highlighting the major role played by female designers in the period between the two world wars. Attention is also given to an international range of contemporary women designers. Extensive notes and bibliography. Many illustrations, some in color.

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