One other French designer, Madeleine Vionnet, managed to survive the transition through the war years and become part of the revolution in fashion. Vionnet cleverly amalgamated a still lingering desire for femininity with the wish to dress without the restricting comfort of corsetry. ... But it was the androgyny promoted by Chanel that dominated women's fashion in Europe in 1919.
During the war she discovered the versatility of jersey cloth as used by stable lads for shirts for training sessions, and began to make sweaters and waistless dresses for women from the same supple fabric. The ornate Edwardian costume that according to a scornful Chanel had 'stifled the body's architecture' started to disappear. Chanel was after 'moral honesty' in the way women presented themselves. She had gauged the time for voicing these feelings to perfection. ...
The flamboyant colors of Paul Poiret's pre-war designs and the theatricality of Bakst's influential costumes for the Ballets Russes suddenly seemed tawdry and overdone. ... A look of luxury was achievable through the severity of simplicity. Expensive poverty was the aim. She dared to suggest that clothes themselves had ceased to matter and that it was the individual who counted.
She cut her hair short 'because it annoyed me'. Everyone cut off their hair in imitation. ... The British aristocracy came to Paris to be close to the source of inspiration. ... As hem lengths rose and flowerpot hats moulded themselves to the side of the head, a voluntary simplification of clothing spread across a wide spectrum of society.
- "Expectation", The Great Silence, Juliet Nicholson (Grove Press: 2009), pp. 173-175
Much of the research in this book is excellent: Nicholson has access to a number of personal memoirs, which she uses to embroider the straightforward historical narrative. I highly recommend it to those interested in the very beginning of the Jazz Age, the first two years after the end of the war. However, when it comes to dress, I find that the author has been completely suckered by the Cult of Chanel.
It's quite understandable. The general idea of Chanel as the reigning goddess of 1920s fashion, creating the extraordinary new styles based strictly on her own taste, women everywhere immediately rushing to join her as she had tapped into a near-universal desire only spurned by old fogeys trying to hold onto the past, is prevalent in the study of fashion history. I went along with this myth for a long time, tempered slightly by the understanding that history is always a bit messier than people generally make it. But as I have been performing my own research into early twentieth century fashion, by the time I read the above excerpt I had learned enough to be somewhere between "disappointed" and "livid".
Was Chanel a popular couturier of the 1920s? Yes.
Did she influence the constantly-changing tide of fashion? Perhaps.
Were she and Vionnet the only designers to escape the 1910s? Demonstrably not.
Did Gabrielle Chanel single-handedly create a new vision for a dawning age of modernity? Please.
Working on More Than Just Flappers has given me quite a lot of feelings on the subject of the often-misrepresented progress of early twentieth century dress, but there is only so much that can be said on the topic in a short time frame. So please join me in a continuing series of posts in which I will deconstruct the many myths about Chanel that appear in quick succession in the excerpt above. Your eyes may be fully opened!