Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Myth of Chanel and the 1920s: VII - Jersey Cloth

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 quite certainly not designing waistless dresses from the beginning of her dressmaking career (as evinced by the plate below), and of course the "stifling" Edwardian costume was gradually evolving on its own.  Fashionable dress was much looser at the waist, but still frequently had a defined waistline, and even Chanel partook in the general complication in decoration and fastening that fashion involved at the time.

"Jersey Outfits; Designs by Gabrielle Channel [sic]", Les Elegances parisiennes, March 1917
However - again, as evinced by the plate - jersey did play a significant role in Chanel's career.  There are varying reasons given for this: that jersey was the only fabric she could buy in bulk or that she got a large amount of it cheaply, that she used stablehands' sweaters for her raw materials, that had to start with a non-dress fabric to avoid violating the terms of her lease.  And Chanel did continue to show jersey dresses into the beginning of her career, probably more than other designers did, but others were using jersey in haute couture by 1916 as well.  It is possible that their use of the fabric was based on her own success, but there is something else important to consider.
Good Housekeeping, September 1918, p. 9
Jersey fabric was seen as a sensible choice for consumers like "business [or] professional women" who required a sturdy and lasting cloth, especially when it was made in rayon.  It was also handy from a price point of view, as jerseys were (and are) made in the round, allowing for simpler cutting.  When woven wool cloth was in shorter supply due to the war, it was seen as an acceptable substitute for use in fashionable dress.

Boston Symphony Orchestra Program, 1917-1918, p. 1274
The explosion of jersey during the war years (although it appears to have been used in women's dress as early as 1880) occurred too quickly to have been due to a single woman's idea and limited influence among the smarter set.  Indeed, while Chanel seems to have been leading the way with jersey in the couture world, the majority of the references I find to it in period texts are aimed at women "who appreciate quality and reasonable prices", who were trying to make ends meet during wartime.  Its use in Red Cross uniforms (due to the fact that it was warm and didn't require much washing - so practical that nobody cared that it went against regulations) probably also spurred an understanding of the material's advantages.  It is seen more frequently in high fashion after the war than before it, but the references actually fly thick and fast in magazines selling patterns for the middle-class consumer.

Jersey is part of Chanel's story, but the trouble is that the way it's usually presented as her sole discovery combined with the fact that much of our clothing today is made of knits implies a far greater influence on her part than exists.

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