Ensemble, ca. 1927
Speaking of herself in the third person, Chanel confided to Salvador Dalí that "all her life, all she did was change men's clothing into women's: jackets, hair, neckties, wrists."
Referencing the dress codes of early- nineteenth-century dandies such as Beau Brummel, Chanel advocated a system of dressing based on modesty, simplicity, and adaptability. Reflecting the dandy's stark sobriety, many of her suits from the 1920s and 1930s were made in black with white or cream blouses, a color contrast that became a Chanel trademark.
The jacket's lining extends to its revers, or lapel facings, a design strategy that Chanel borrowed from military uniforms, and one that she continued to employ throughout her career.
Constructed with no side seams, the curving patterns pieces of the jacket are expressive of its structure. Along with the lapel facings, raw-edged chiffon corsage, and clustered-button front closure, this seaming provides the suit's only decoration.
The two- or three-piece suit became Chanel's most iconic design, immediately recognizable in its endless permutations. Although introduced in the teens, it was only after 1954 that the design came to incorporate such typical features as gilt buttons and braiding to outline and reinforce the hem, cuffs, and lapels of the jacket.
Soft and untailored, Chanel's suits, often made from light, loosely woven tweed, exemplify her impulse toward ease and comfort. Skirt pleats and jacket sleeves with high-cut armholes facilitate movement, while blouses, often designed to match the lining of the jacket, reveal practical details such as buttons with workable buttonholes and self-tie bows that suggest versatility within simplicity.
In this jacket contrastive braiding incorporates yarns of the jacket. A tabbed placket closure on the coordinated blouse anchors it to the narrow yoke of the skirt, a feature that Chanel introduced into her suits at least as early as 1957. Made in the same fabric as the blouse, the yoke eliminates bulk at the waist and gives the illusion of a fitted waistband to the blouse.
Ensemble, ca. 1927
Like her suit, Chanel's "little black dress" also venerated the style of the dandy. Monastic in its austerity, it ascribed primacy to function or functions. This utility-based aesthetic, however, belied its exemplary execution, which relied on the refined, hand-sewn finishes of the couture.
Styles and materials differed for day and evening. In the 1920s, day versions were often made from jersey, silk charmeuse, or crêpe de chine and usually featured long sleeves.
Evening versions of the "little black dress," which tended to be sleeveless, were often made from layered lace or silk chiffon with asymmetric hems and scooping necklines.
This superb example shows Chanel's acute sensibility for scooping neckline forms, always suspended from the shoulders with a cascade of the light drapery of the dress falling to knee length without detection of bust or hips. Vogue said of these Chanel dresses that they show her "art of avoiding mistakes." That same art is what is sought by the generations of women who have counted on "the little black dress."
Lines of top-stitching keep the seams of this dress crisp, while picot edging, a technique more associated with lingerie, is used to finish its perimeters.
Unlike rolled hems, which finish the neckline of the dress and overblouse, picot stitching creates a light but sharply defined edge while precluding the unraveling of the fabric.
Evening ensemble, 1935
The obfuscation of extraneous decoration was consistent with both day and evening versions of the "little black dress." Even in dresses that were entirely embellished with paillettes, Chanel managed to assert an antidecorative aesthetic.
In this ensemble, the paillettes are applied in a uniform field, enhancing the garment's monochromatic starkness as well as its straight silhouette.
Plain or embroidered, however, Chanel's little black dress, like her separates and two- or three- piece suit, created a balance between the formal and the disciplined, the casual and the spontaneous. It was this equilibrium that ultimately came to define "the Chanel look," a modern, practical, unpretentious style that steered the course of twentieth-century fashion.