Coco Chanel: Modernism

How Coco Chanel changed fashion forever

By The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

EnsembleThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel

More than any other designer of the twentieth century, Coco Chanel revised and adapted fashion to the tenets of utility and integrity of materials, tenets that are the defining features of modernism. Her emphasis on the functionalism of sportswear and her appropriations from menswear, as well as from service and military uniforms, broke with typical haute-couture dress styles and practices. Pragmatic and purposeful, her clothes were designed with realistic lifestyle applications. Chanel's early sportswear ensembles reformed restrictive Edwardian conventions. Her jersey separates of skirts, dresses, sweaters and cardigans liberated women from the pretenses of dressing for an occasion or for an allotted time of day. Rational and versatile, they fostered self-reliance and self-expression.

Ensemble (ca. 1927) by Gabrielle "Coco" ChanelThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

SuitThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Suit, 1963–68

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.

EnsembleThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

EnsembleThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

Evening ensembleThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dress, 1925

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."

Evening Ensemble (1925) by Gabrielle "Coco" ChanelThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

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 ensembleThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

Evening ensembleThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Some of Chanel's all-over paillette evening clothes revealed sportswear influences. Several were based on separates dressing, such as tops, skirts, and scarves, with some bodices revealing straps based on swimwear.

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