In Paris December 1918 everyone was dressed in black. Minimal jewelry, often fashioned out of ammunition or brooches holding a loved one’s strand of hair, donned those reuniting or grieving (Brower). Edwardian fashions could still be seen, but a young woman named Coco Chanel had set up shop at 31 Rue de Cambon offering simple day dresses made of jersey and shimmering evening dresses with breezy straight lines that hugged a woman’s body without altering its natural shape. As with so many other ways of life altered by the Great War, fashion would never be the same.
Photo: Coco Chanel / Photo / 1909. Photograph. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.
quest.eb.com/search/109_128594/1/109_128594/cite. Accessed 9 Feb 2018.
Edwardian fashion, known for its extravagant opulence and form fitting corsets, was forced into more austere styles due to shortages in fabric and leather. In addition to these stylistic changes, the very purpose of fashion changed with the beginning of the Great War. Edwardian and French luxury fashion oriented towards the needs of upper-class women who could change their clothes multiple times in a day. Chanel, and most women of the time, needed more practical wear for everyday use (Brower).
Photo: Chanel Gabrielle, ‘Coco’. Photography. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.
quest.eb.com/search/153_2938872/1/153_2938872/cite. Accessed 9 Feb 2018.
With no formal training, Coco Chanel began as a tailor modifying clothes for soldiers (Croll 50). Later, she would experiment with men’s blazers, modifying them into something she could wear herself. With her first Paris shop successfully selling hats, Coco began selling the clothes she had adapted, throwing out the stiff corsets and showcasing her sleek and tailored trend in the small seaside town of Deauville where she spent the war years (Croll 55). This aesthetic, known as the “garçonne look”, suited the conditions of the Great War with more practical clothing made from inexpensive material and stripped of unnecessary detail and decoration (Croll 56). The simplicity of the designs were easy to replicate offering less expensive alternatives to those who could not afford the Chanel brand. Many of these trends we still see today, including cardigans, sweaters, and later, the little black dress (Brower).
Photo: GABRIELLE ‘COCO’ CHANEL – (1883-1971). French fashion designer. Photographed at her home, Villa La Pausa in Roquebrune, in the French Riviera, with her dog, Gigot, c1930.. Fine Art. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016. quest.eb.com/search/140_1704231/1/140_1704231/cite.Accessed 9 Feb 2018.
Chanel recognized the influence she had on the fashion of the time and without doubt attributed it to her understanding of the different fashion needs of women during and after World War I, “I set fashions precisely because I went out, because I was the first woman to live fully the life of her times” (Mackrell 1). Coco’s fashions were smart and feminine, simple and active, timeless and innovative, leaving a lasting impression on women’s fashion as they moved toward an independent and liberated life after the Great War.
Brower, Brock. “Chez Chanel.” [“Smithsonian”]. Smithsonian, vol. 32, no. 4, July 2001, p.60.
Charles-Roux, Edmonde. Chanel: Her Life, Her World, and the Woman behind the Legend She Herself Created. Trans. Nancy Amphoux. New York: Knopf, 1975.
De La Haye, Amy. Chanel: The Couturiere at Work. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1994.
Mackrell, Alice. Coco Chanel. London: B. T. Batsford, 1992.