Gabrielle Chanel: dressing the modern woman

Gabrielle Chanel (1883 – 1971) grew up during a period of strict dressing conventions where silhouette was prioritised over comfort. Women's fashion involved shape-altering, restrictive undergarments such as corsets and bustles, under outfits which were sometimes accompanied by incredibly large, richly decorated headwear.

Gabrielle Chanel first entered the world of fashion in 1909, initially as a milliner. Rejecting the extravagance and complexity of the prevailing fashions, she instead offered pared-back, plainer styles. Although her hats from this period seem large and decorative by today's standards, at the time their sense of austere chic and relative simplicity immediately caught the interest of fashionable Parisians. When she first began creating clothing a few years later, it was this same sense of streamlined style that attracted her clients.

(Left to Right:) Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, 1910. © Everett/Shutterstock; Newspaper clipping featuring feather hats designed by Gabrielle Chanel, photographed by Félix, Comoedia Illustré, 1910. Image courtesy of H Prints

Initially designing clothing for those in the fashionable French seaside resorts of Deauville and Biarritz, Gabrielle Chanel was inspired by her coastal surroundings. Here she created pullover tunics in fine silk jersey that echoed the style of traditional sailor's sweaters, which could be loosely belted and worn over flared skirts.

Gabrielle Chanel on the beach, unknown photographer, 1913, Étretat, France. © Album / Alamy Stock Photo

Throughout her career, Gabrielle Chanel would continue to borrow from menswear, reinterpreting its forms for a feminine clientele. These early jersey ensembles – which did not require a corset or other restrictive undergarment – proved well suited to the more relaxed environment of coastal resorts. Her designs were comfortable and, importantly, allowed the wearer to move freely – two factors that were far from common in womenswear at the time. In November 1915 the New York Herald Tribune reported that 'it was the Chanel silk jersey suits which were to be seen in such profusion at Deauville last summer that they were considered to be almost a Deauville uniform and necessity', before going on to describe with enthusiasm the woollen and velvet versions introduced by the House of CHANEL for the autumn and winter seasons. The following summer Vogue reported that 'the liking for jersey has, by the way, developed into a passion – a veritable craze.' Gabrielle Chanel's success here lay in her ability to provide comfort and mobility in styles that were also fashionable and socially acceptable.

Maison Chanel Sportswear, by unknown artist, The New York Herald, European Edition, June 4, 1916. © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Gabrielle Chanel had a talent for taking a conventionally used textile and utilising it again in a wholly unconventional way. This astute and sometimes surprising choice of fabric has remained a distinctive element of her work. Before she adopted them for her fashionable womenswear in the 1910s, plain silk jersey had primarily been used in men's sportswear and undergarments. By the 1920s she had applied the hardy, humble tweeds that were the mainstay of practical country sporting garb to her neatly tailored, feminine suits worn by women in cities such as Paris and London. The 1930s saw her radical proposal for cotton fabrics for eveningwear in place of luxurious silk satins and silk velvets. Later she continued her flair for the unexpected by using richly decorative lamé fabrics for her eveningwear.

Dresses, by Gabrielle Chanel, 1965 and 1967. Patrimoine de CHANEL, Paris. © CHANEL / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Aside from her boundaryless approach to fabrics, the principles of comfort and movement continued to inform Gabrielle Chanel's creations. She designed first and foremost for herself and as an active, working woman, desiring clothes that served her lifestyle. Her early daywear features the hallmarks that would continue to characterise her designs for decades into the future, retaining a level of simplicity and a restraint of decoration, though they were in reality far from straightforward. She created her garments directly on the figure, studying the fall of the fabric and instructing her mannequins to move so that she could minimise any restriction. Points of interest were often placed in small details, intricate trimmings or monochrome stitching, and the overall line of the garment was paramount. In the 1920s, her blouse and skirt ensembles morphed into loose-fitting skirt-blouse-jacket or dress and jacket combinations.

Dress and jacket, by Gabrielle Chanel, Spring / Summer 1926 or 1927. Patrimoine de CHANEL, Paris. © CHANEL / Photo: Nicholas Alan Cope

In contrast to the overt and elaborate decoration seen in much eveningwear in the 1920s and 30s, Gabrielle Chanel took a streamlined approach – stripping back her designs and focusing on line, silhouette, and subtle details. As with her daywear, she created garments that were easy and effortless to wear, that did not hamper movement and instead worked with the body. Making sure that any adornment did not weigh the wearer down, decoration appeared in the form of all-over monochrome sequins or beading, self-applique (using same material as the garment), and intricate construction piecing together strategically cut panels of lace, chiffon or tulle. Many of Chanel's designs from the 1930s are remarkably daring in how they reveal and conceal the body.

Evening dress, by Gabrielle Chanel, 1932, Paris, France. Museum no. T.339-1960. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Stretching convention once again, Chanel proposed evening pyjamas to be worn when entertaining at home in the 1930s. This consisted of wide leg trousers paired with a loose-fitting long jacket or tunic. Demonstrating their sartorial appeal, Chanel was pictured wearing a pair of white satin trousers during a trip to the USA in 1931, teamed with a chiffon scarf and strings of pearls. She also offered trousers for beach ensembles and as part of her designs for sportswear – in June 1931 American Vogue advised its readers that 'Chanel has a white linen yachting pyjama that is superb.'

Gabrielle Chanel dressed in white satin evening pyjamas in her suite at the Hotel Pierre, New York City, 1931. © GRANGER– Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

By the end of the 1920s, Gabrielle Chanel had cemented her reputation as an arbiter of contemporary style. Silvia Lyon of The Bystander commented in 1929 that 'she always seems to be one jump ahead of everybody' and as the years progressed, Gabrielle Chanel maintained her talent for setting trends. Well into her third decade as a designer, in 1936, the fashion writer known as Priscilla declared in The Tatler that 'Chanel is gloriously and uncompromisingly modern'.

When Gabrielle Chanel came out of retirement and returned to fashion in 1954 at the age of 71, her name was no longer associated with the new and novel, but with past achievements. Some journalists criticised her return collection by likening it to her designs from past decades. Despite an initially cool reception from some of the fashion press, certain titles such as French Elle and American Vogue recognised the virtues of CHANEL's return designs, and their readers agreed.

CHANEL suits, photographed 2023. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As ever, Gabrielle Chanel was designing with herself in mind and presenting clothes that were intentionally comfortable and effortless to wear. In contradiction to the accentuated, constructed hourglass silhouettes of Dior's New Look (the reigning style of the time), Gabrielle Chanel offered women an option that required no restrictive undergarment or figure-enhancing padding, and wasn't stiff to wear. The defining garment of her post-war career was the CHANEL suit, which focussed on wearability, practicality, and a sense of instant smartness. It proved to be the ultimate versatile garment, with a version appropriate for almost any occasion – so much so that by September 1964 American Vogue heralded CHANEL's suit as 'the world’s prettiest uniform.'

See Lauren Bacall's CHANEL suit in our Fashion Unpicked film.