Coco Chanel: Romanticism

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evening ensemble, 1936

In tune with the fashions of the 1930s, Chanel went through what has been called her "romantic" period, typified by lace and tulle gowns with skirt ruffles or flounces.

Although the clothes are seemingly anti-modern in their aesthetic, Chanel asserted their modernity by revealing and emphasizing the techniques of their construction such as vertical overstitching to hold the soft lace tiers in fixed flounces.

By using the virtuoso hand-sewn details of the couture as both structural and decorative devices, Chanel was responding to the clarion call of modernism that required design to speak of utility and truth to materials.

In this dress, the tulle picot-edged ruffles have been shirred, set by heat, and the shirring thread removed. Although the lace is veiled by the tulle ruffles, it is not obscured completely, a strategy that enhances the ensembles poetic configuration.

Shirring was a technique that Chanel used as early as the Teens, becoming one of her established and recognizable "tools of the trade" by the 1920s.

Evening ensemble, ca. 1932

Tulle and chiffon, like lace, possess inherent tensile qualities that enabled Chanel to assert the natural curvature of the body.

Although this dress has a fitted bodice, it flares out in a cascade of picot-edged ruffles to facilitate mobility. Shirring is applied to the derrière and center front of the bodice, discreetly animating the gown's surface while accommodating the body's topography.

Worn with its matching capelet, the daring dress, with its plunging neckline, becomes more demure and romantic.

Evening ensemble, 1937–38

Throughout the 1930s Chanel continued to exploit the dramatic possibilities of black, often using it to enhance the romantic and seductive appeal of her lace evening dresses.

In this dress, picot-edged lace ruffles applied to tulle are given added volume through a waxed tulle underskirt. Shirring adds shape to the bodice, while hook and eye fastenings, associated with lingerie and underwear, achieve an even closer fit.

Evening dress, ca. 1930

Many of Chanel's dresses of the 1930s were infused with a new, or at least latent, historicism. Based almost exclusively on styles from the Second Empire—the so-called Winterhalter gowns with corseted waistlines and flounced, crinoline skirts—they revealed a temporal specificity. To evoke the skirt ruffles of the period, Chanel often used strips of lace applied to a tulle base (or vice versa). By a process of structural simplification however, Chanel attained the modishly languid and attenuated silhouette of the 1930s.

While Chanel did not seem to have employed corseting, some of her dresses relied on boning to allow for 1860s-style, off-the-shoulder décolletes that had no straps or sleeves for support.

This dress is further modernized by Chanel's proud display of the techniques of its construction. Vertical overstitching holds the soft lace tiers in fixed flounces, thereby providing structural fortification.

Volume is achieved with an underskirt in tulle and horsehair, and an underslip in silk crêpe de chine, with a lace hem that matches the lace of the overdress. Each ruffle is finished with picot edging, a machined technique that Chanel employed to underscore the romantic modernism or, rather, the modern romanticism of the dress.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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