Coco Chanel at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Day dress, ca. 1924
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (French, 1883–1971)
Irene Lewisohn Bequest, 1975 (1975.7)

[Particularly known for her innovative sportswear designs, Chanel used knits, such as jersey or knit tweed, to great advantage. Here, in this early example, she has created a dress that is both unmistakably stylish and completely practical with elements of construction that serve both decorative and functional purposes. A dress made of supple knitted fabric like this would not require much seaming to achieve a comfortable fit, but here the seams also flatter, emphasizing the slim verticality of the design. Even the braided self-fabric trim serves as button loops at the center front and sleeve cuffs. While the overall design is elegant, Chanel has also created a dress that slips over the head like the comfortable sweaters she first sold in Deauville.’]

Evening dress, ca. 1926–27
Attributed to Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (French, 1883–1971)
Silk, metallic threads, sequins
Gift of Mrs. Georges Gudefin, 1965 (C.I.65.47.2a,b)

In addition to her revolutionary knit sportswear innovations, Chanel’s evening wear from the 1920s gave the illusion of metal metamorphosed into supple knits with her use of metallic lace, lavish embroidery, and beading. The exquisite workmanship was executed by Chanel’s own embroidery workshop. This example features metallic lace and sequins applied in tightly overlapping rows. The ornament of the dress, in both pattern and color palette, resembles the Asian lacquered screens which the designer loved and collected.

Day ensemble, ca. 1927
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (French, 1883–1971)
Silk, wool, metal

Purchase, The New-York Historical Society by Exchange Fund, 1984 (1984.28a-c)

[This ensemble represents the “little black dress,” one of Chanel’s most popular and enduring contributions to women’s fashion. In all of its layered details, a simple material, wool jersey, becomes elegant through superior tailoring technique. Couture details such as seam binding, carefully arranged pleats, the finely finished hem of the skirt, and hand-sewn belt make this ensemble an example of Chanel’s characteristic poverty de luxe, an expensive interpretation of a simple design made of modest materials. Chanel appropriated tailoring details from riding habits, men’s wear, and service uniforms in her quest to reduce and refine women’s clothing to its simplest and most elegant.]

Day ensemble, ca. 1927
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (French, 1883–1971)
Silk, wool
Isabel Shults Fund, 1984 (1984.31a–c)

Chanel excelled at soft tailoring. This particular coat-and-dress ensemble blends dressmaker techniques with the definite finishes of the tailor. The dress hem and appliqués of chiffon on the jacket have been carefully cut to follow the floral pattern of the textile. The fabric is reinforced with ornamental overstitching in a manner that, while appearing to be entirely decorative, also provides structural reinforcement. This soft tailoring became the token of the Chanel suit in the designer’s sustained evolution until her death in 1971.

Evening coat, ca. 1927
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (French, 1883–1971)
Silk, metallic thread
Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Bequest and Catherine Breyer Von Bomel Foundation, Hoechst Fiber Industries, and Chauncy Stillman Gifts, 1984 (1984.30)

The convergence of Art Deco line, the modernist impulse to facilitate pure form, and japonisme’s potential to offer a vocabulary of untailored wrapping shapes was more than fortuitous. Chanel uses a French ombré textile with pattern sources from the Japanese kimono, but brings to it the ethos of chaste minimalism. As Western fashion designers discovered from the East that untailored lengths of fabric could constitute modern dress, the cylinder and the textile plane became the new forms for apparel.

Shirt, ca. 1935–37
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (French, 1883–1971)
Gift of Mrs. Michael Blankfort, in memory of her mother, Mrs. William Constable Breed, 1976 (1976.29.7)

In this example, Chanel uses striped jersey to create a dramatic and jaunty sports shirt. She purposefully designed the garment on the bias to create interest with diagonal lines, angles, and intersections. The tie at the neck refers to a sailor’s dress, just one of the working-class examples of men’s wear from which she drew inspiration. This shirt continues the boyish “Garçonne” look Chanel championed in the 1920s. The pairing of this particular fabric with the cut of the blouse creates a signature Chanel sportswear look.

Evening ensemble, 1936
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (French, 1883–1971)
Ivory silk lace with ivory silk tulle
Gift of Mrs. Stephen M. Kellen, 1978 (1978.165.16a,b)

Off-white had been in fashion since the late 1920s, popularized by an adverse reaction to the use of black for daytime, afternoon, and evening wear, and petitioned for early evening by members of the international elite, most prominently Daisy Fellowes. Mrs. Fellowes claimed that her adoration for the pale hue resonated in the elegance and modernism of muslin Directoire-era empire gowns. In the French department store, off-white was considered a perfect compromise between the stark, formal white of evening wear and the muted hues of 1930s daytime garb.

Though Coco Chanel’s most famous incarnation of the early twentieth century was her celebrated wool jersey recreational separates costume, the couturière certainly appreciated the value of elegant couture stitching and refined design for evening wear. While other Parisian houses and American department stores were creating ankle-length 1930s sheaths for the early evening, Chanel seemed disinterested in the more formalistic etiquette of dress; her designs were limited to daytime or sportswear dresses and suits, which inevitably reached mid-calf length, or long, streamlined evening gowns that draped over a slim silhouette and sometimes included a brief train at back.

This evening ensemble is an exception to Chanel’s unspoken rule. While the two-piece garment dates too early in Chanel’s oeuvre to be designated a cocktail ensemble, it falls appropriately to above floor-length and includes a removable matching evening jacket with a modest neckline and sleeves. The transformative qualities of this ensemble were characteristic for cocktail suits of the 1930s; even at the couture level, the removable jacket allowed a smooth, easy transition between early evening clothing and garments intended for late-night soirées. The ensemble is composed of silk net that has been treated in a labor-intensive manner with ruffles shirred in, set by heat, and the shirring thread removed; the delicate construction and obsessive attention to detail intimates the refined tailoring technique and immaculate eye of Chanel couture.

Evening dress, 1938
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (French, 1883–1971)
Black silk net with polychrome sequins
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.7a–c)

The decoration of sequined fireworks on this evening dress, which was worn by Countess Madeleine de Montgomery to Lady Mendl’s seventy-fifth birthday party in 1939, is a fitting climax to le beau monde of the 1930s. When Adolf Hitler declared that Germany was at war with Poland in September 1939, the glamorous era of the 1930s came to a close. The fireworks motif, executed in brilliantly colored sequins, takes on additional symbolic meaning since the dress was created and worn immediately prior to the start of World War II. The dress was part of a collection assembled and brought to New York by the donors and their friends and displayed in an exhibition to benefit the French war charities in 1940.

Theater suit, 1938

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (French, 1883–1971)

Gift of Diana Vreeland, 1954 (C.I.54.16.1a,b)

This suit made of ruby red silk velvet was inspired by a costume worn to a masquerade party in 1938. Called ‘Watteau” and modeled after the dress of the male figure in a painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), the suit represents a successful melding of contemporary and historical styles. The suit was intended to be worn with a flared floor-length skirt; the original owner, Diana Vreeland (1903–1989), shortened the skirt when the garment was in her personal wardrobe. Chanel herself wore a version of this suit executed in black velvet.

Cocktail ensemble, ca. 1964

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (French, 1883–1971)
Black silk and synthetic pile; ivory polyester blend damask with black nylon jersey
Gift of Mrs. Murray Graham, 1973 (1973.297.2a,b)

Chanel promoted jersey fabrics in 1916, as the first of many innovations for outdoor recreation and chic sportability. Her most famous introduction, which characteristically borrowed several of its constructive components from menswear tailoring traditions, was the famed “Chanel Suit.” Early forms of this ensemble were promoted in her 1920s collections, with the suit jacket as a wool jersey cardigan, paired with a silk or sheer cotton blouse and a kick-pleated jersey skirt. The blouse almost always matched the jacket lining, as demonstrated in the 1960s design here. More formal incarnations of the Chanel Suit were produced in silk or linen for the cocktail hour.

This suit employs a black silk and synthetic clipped pile for the jacket and skirt, with an understated ivory damask for the blouse. The black bow became a signature detail for Chanel couture before mid-century, but only with its insertion into cocktail-formal versions of the postwar Chanel Suit was the necktie truly celebrated. The luxurious textiles of the suit, paired with the designer’s signature gold weight chain, made the ensemble an obvious choice for the cocktail hour. With evening-appropriate materials, the suit played on notions of day-into-evening dress that were present in the cocktail garb of 1930s café society.

 Karl Lagerfeld

Dress, fall/winter 1987–88
Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Germany, 1938), for House of Chanel (French, founded 1913)
Black vinyl and black nylon blend tulle, black silk satin, and black polyester jersey

Gift of Thomas Shoemaker, in memory of Michael L. Cipriano, 1994 (1994.161.1)

Created by Coco Chanel in 1926, the little black dress was translated to ready-to-wear as a staple of late afternoon and cocktail hours; American women at every level of consumption knew the importance of a practical, “well-mannered black.” Black had been used for formal and semi-formal occasions in preceding decades. But when Chanel administered her sporty menswear-inspired silhouette, her little dress was immediately dubbed the “Ford of Fashion” by American Vogue for its transformative qualities. The little black dress became a minimalist canvas for day, cocktail, and evening accessories, including hats, gloves, pocketbooks, and above all else, costume jewelry. As the silhouette of the little black dress evolved to accommodate the fashionable shape of each consecutive decade, it became more of a social institution than a design.

Though the original was constructed in a reserved black crepe de chine, Karl Lagerfeld, who became head designer for the House of Chanel in 1983, executed this little black dress from autumn/winter 1987–88 in a fetishistic black vinyl and black polyester jersey combination. Lagerfeld infuses a controversial, modern persona into the 1920s silhouette (with dropped waistline, flounced knee-length skirt, and modest cocktail neckline) that first brought Coco fame. The design embodies the irony of the late twentieth-century “cocktail” outfit. In the postmodern aesthetic, the cocktail outfit seems to dress only the runway, professing nostalgia for submissive femininity or parading a tongue-in-cheek social commentary.

 Karl Lagerfeld

Evening ensemble, spring/summer 1992
Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Germany, 1938), for House of Chanel (French, founded 1913)
Silk, cotton, metal, wood

Gift of Chanel, 1993 (1993.104.2a-c)

This evening ensemble designed by Karl Lagerfeld for the House of Chanel illustrates his success in maintaining and reinterpreting the style elements created by Gabrielle Chanel. This example features several overt references to Chanel’s innovative designs of previous decades. Lagerfeld has paired a men’s underwear-type tank top, emblazoned with the interlocked “CC” logo (first seen on Chanel’s suit buttons in 1964), with a frothy tulle skirt. To this combination, he has added an oversized gold-colored metal and wood chain belt, employing yet another signature Chanel accessory dating from the 1960s. With a skillful use of references to past Chanel designs, Lagerfeld’s interpretations bring the classic Chanel look up to date.

Early Success

Among the key designers who made a bold and lasting impression on women’s fashion in the twentieth century, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883–1971) deserves special recognition. Born in Saumur, in the Loire Valley of France, Chanel survived an impoverished childhood and strict convent education. The difficulties of her early life inspired her to pursue a radically different lifestyle, first on the stage, where she acquired the nickname “Coco,” and then as a milliner.

With the help of one of the male admirers who would provide key financial assistance and social connections over the course of her career, Chanel opened her first shop in Paris in 1913, followed by another in the resort town of Deauville. Selling hats and a limited line of garments, Chanel’s shops developed a dedicated clientele who quickly made her practical sportswear a great success. Much of Chanel’s clothing was made of jersey, a choice of fabric both unusual and inspired. Until the designer began to work with it, jersey was more commonly used for men’s underwear. With her financial situation precarious in the early years of her design career, Chanel purchased jersey primarily for its low cost. The qualities of the fabric, however, ensured that the designer would continue to use it long after her business became profitable. The fabric draped well and suited Chanel’s designs, which were simple, practical, and often inspired by men’s wear, especially the uniforms prevalent when World War I broke out in 1914.

Chanel succeeded in packaging and marketing her own personal attitudes and style, making her a key arbiter of women’s taste throughout the twentieth century.

As her fashion-conscious customers fled Paris at the beginning of the war, Chanel’s boutiques in Deauville and Biarritz flourished. Chanel’s uncluttered styles, with their boxy lines and shortened skirts, allowed women to leave their corsets behind and freed them for the practical activities made necessary by the war. Elements of these early designs became hallmarks of the Chanel look (1975.7; 1984.28a-c; 1976.29.7) Chanel took great pride as a woman in designing for other women, and by 1919, at the age of thirty-two, she enjoyed huge success, with clients around the world. Soon after, she relocated her couture house in Paris to 31 Rue Cambon, which remains the center of operations for the House of Chanel today.

A Style Icon
Chanel’s own lifestyle fueled her ideas of how modern women everywhere should look, act, and dress. Her own slim boyish figure and cropped hair became an ideal, as did her tanned skin, active lifestyle, and financial independence. Throughout her career, Chanel succeeded in packaging and marketing her own personal attitudes and style, making her a key arbiter of women’s taste throughout the twentieth century.

The designer’s passionate interests inspired her fashions. Her apartment and her clothing followed her favorite color palette, shades of beige, black, and white (1978.165.16a,b; 1984.30). Elements from her art collection and theatrical interests likewise provided themes for her collections (C.I.65.47.2a,b). When Chanel attended a masquerade ball dressed as a figure from a Watteau painting, she later reworked the costume into a woman’s suit (C.I.54.16.1a,b). She hired Russian émigrés from her circle of friends to work in her embroidery workshop, creating designs to her exacting specifications. Known for a relentless drive for perfection, whether in design or fit, and strong opinions in all matters of taste, Chanel backed her clothing with the authority of her personal conviction.

Chanel continued to create successful looks for women through the 1920s and ’30s. In 1926, American Voguelikened Chanel’s “little black dress” to the Ford, alluding to its almost universal popularity as a fashion basic. In fact, the concept of the dress suitable for day and evening did become both a staple for Chanel throughout subsequent seasons and a classic piece of twentieth-century women’s wear (1984.28a-c). The designer also used colorful feminine printed chiffons in her daywear designs (1984.31a-c). Evening ensembles followed the long slim line for which the designer was known, but also incorporated tulle, lace, and decorative elements that soften and romanticize the overall look of the garment (1978.165.16a,b; C.I.46.4.7a-c).

The Closure and the Comeback
Despite her great success, Chanel closed the doors of her salon in 1939, when France declared war on Germany. Other couturiers left the country, but Chanel endured the war in Paris, her future uncertain. Following the end of the hostilities and resolution of some personal difficulties, Chanel found she could not idly stand by and observe the early success of Christian Dior, whose “New Look” prevailed in the postwar period. While many admired Dior’s celebration of femininity, with full skirts and nipped-in waists, Chanel felt his designs were neither modern nor suitable for the liberated women who had survived another war by taking on active roles in society. Just as she had following World War I, Chanel set out to rescue and reinvigorate women’s fashion.

The designer faced challenges in this endeavor: securing finances, assembling a new staff, seeking out new fabrics, competing at age seventy against a new generation of designers. Chanel’s comeback collection of couture debuted in 1953 (1976.370.2a-c). Although it was not a critical success, the designer persevered. Within three seasons, Chanel was enjoying newfound respect. She updated her classic looks, reworking the classic tweed designs until wealthy women and celebrities returned to the showroom in droves. The Chanel suit became a status symbol for a new generation, made of solid or tweed fabric, with its slim skirt and collarless jacket trimmed in braid, gold buttons, patch pockets, and—sewn into the hem—a gold-colored chain ensuring it hung properly from the shoulders. Chanel also reintroduced her handbags, jewelry, and shoes with great success in subsequent seasons.

The Legacy Continues
Following Chanel’s death in 1971, several of her assistants designed the couture and ready-to-wear lines until Karl Lagerfeld (born 1938) took over the haute couture design in 1983 and ready-to-wear in 1984. Lagerfeld, like Chanel at the time of her comeback, looked to past designs for the secret to his success. His designs incorporated signature Chanel details, tweed fabrics, colors, gold chains, quilt-stitched leather, and the linked “CC” logo. In later collections, Lagerfeld became more irreverent, deconstructing some of the ladylike polish of Chanel’s 1960s looks. Playing with the fact that Chanel’s favorite jersey fabric had been used for men’s underwear at the turn of the twentieth century, Lagerfeld even incorporated men’s T-shirts and briefs into his designs (1993.104.2a-c). Nonetheless, Lagerfeld’s ability to continuously mine the Chanel archive for inspiration testifies to the importance of Gabrielle Chanel’s contributions to women’s fashion in the twentieth century.

Jessa Krick
The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

About jackikellum

Jacki Kellum is a Fine Artist, a Designer, and also a writer. For one of her graduate programs, she wrote her thesis on William Blake. Like Blake, much of Kellum's work is about childhood and lost innocence. Also like Blake, Kellum strives to both write and illustrate her work. .
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