The 1920s

Fashions of the early 1920s. From 1920 to 1923 Chanel conducted a liaison with the grand duke Dmitri Pavlovitch, grandson of Russia's Tsar Alexander II, and her collections during these years were imbued with Russian influences. Particularly noteworthy were loose shift dresses, waistcoats, blouses, and evening coats made in dark and neutral colors with exquisite, brightly colored, folkloric Russian embroideries stitched by exiled aristocrats. In 1922 Chanel showed long, lean, belted blouses based on Russian peasant wear.

By 1923 she had further simplified the cut of her clothes and offered fewer brocaded fabrics, while her em broideries—red and beige were favorite colors that year—displayed more restrained and modernistic designs. Chanel led the international trend toward shorter hemlines. Her premises on the rue Cambon, which had already expanded in 1919, grew to include numbers 27, 29, and 31 during the early 1920s.

Perfumes. Chanel launched her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, in 1921. Reputedly named for the designer's lucky number, No. 5 was blended by Ernest Beaux, who used aldehydes (an organic compound which yields acids when oxidized and alcohols when reduced) to enhance the fragrance of such costly natural ingredients as jasmine, the perfume's base note. Chanel designed the modern pharmaceutical-style bottle and monochrome packaging herself. Chanel No. 5 was the first perfume to bear a designer's name. Building upon the success of No. 5, Chanel introduced Cuir de Russie (1924), Bois des Iles (1926), and Gardénia (1927) before the end of the decade.

La garçonne. Chanel's interpretation of masculine styles and sportswear—her blazers, waistcoats, and shirts with cufflinks, as well as her choice of fabrics—were greatly inspired by the garments worn by the duke of Westminster (an Englishman with whom she was involved between 1923 and 1930) and his aristocratic friends. Following a fishing holiday in Scotland, she introduced her customers to Fair Isle woolens and tweeds. The duke bought her a mill to secure exclusive fabrics for her new styles. Chanel was also inspired by humbler items of masculine apparel, including berets, reefer jackets, mechanics' dungarees, stonemasons' neckerchiefs, and sailor suits, which she rendered utterly luxurious for her wealthy clients. Chanel herself often wore loose sailor-style trousers, flouting the rules of sartorial etiquette that generally restricted women from wearing trousers to the beach or within the home as evening pajamas.

In 1927 Vogue recommended Chanel's jersey suit in soft tan wool, with collar, cuffs, blouse, and jacket lining in rose jersey, for the woman who wanted to look chic on board ship. The long-line jacket buttoned diagonally, while the skirt was box-pleated at the front. Throughout her career Chanel paid great attention to the cut of her sleeves, ensuring that they permitted the wearer to move with ease without distorting the lines of the garment. By the fall of 1929 her sports costumes were still slim but longer, with hemlines reaching below the calf.

The little black dress. Chanel had designed black dresses as early as 1913, when she made a black velvet dress with a white petal collar for Suzanne Orlandi. In April 1919 British Vogue reported that "Chanel takes into account the lack of motors and the general difficulty of living in Paris just now by her almost invariably black evening dresses" (p. 48). But it was not until American Vogue (1 October 1926) described a garçonne-style black day dress as "The Chanel 'Ford'—the frock that all the world will wear" (p. 69) that the little black dress took the fashion world by storm. And although the use of black in fash ion has a long history, Chanel has been credited as its originator ever since.

Theatrical costume. The stage was a prominent showcase for fashion designers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chanel always moved in artistic circles, and she often supported the work of her friends both financially and by working collaboratively with them. In 1922 she designed Grecian-style costumes in coarse wool for Jean Cocteau's adaptation of Sophocles's Antigone; the designs were featured in French Vogue (1 February 1923). The following year she dressed the dancers of the Ballets russes in jersey bathing costumes and sports clothes similar to those seen in her fashion collections for the modern-realist production Le train bleu (1924). And in 1926 the actresses in Cocteau's Orphée were dressed head to toe in Chanel's latest fashions.

Jewelry. Chanel believed the role of jewelry was to decorate an ensemble rather than to flaunt wealth, and she challenged convention by wearing heaps of jewelry, often precious, during the day—even for sailing—while for evening she sometimes wore no jewelry at all. The loose, straight-cut shapes of Chanel's fashions and her use of many plain fabrics provided the perfect foil for the lavish costume jewelry that she introduced in the early 1920s. Lacking any desire to replicate precious jewels, Chanel's designs, initially made by Maison Gripoix, defied nature in their bold use of color and size. In 1924 she opened her own jewelry workshop, which was managed by the comte Étienne de Beaumont. Beaumont designed the long chains with colored stones and cross-shaped pendants that became a classic of her house. Chanel was fond of Byzantine crosses, and she was also inspired by the buttons, chains, and tassels of military costumes.

Her oversized fake pearls, worn in multiple strands, were an instant success. In 1926 Chanel created a vogue for mismatched earrings by wearing a black pearl in one ear and a white one in the other. In 1928 she introduced diamond paste jewelry and in 1929 offered "gypsy" necklaces—triple strands of red, green, and yellow beads, as well as colored beads combined with chunky wooden chains.

Fashions of the later 1920s. By the late 1920s Chanel's fashions were adorned with geometric designs. For day-wear she used stripes and checks as well as patterns inspired by Fair Isle knitwear; for evening many of her black lace fabrics were combined with metallic, embroidered, or beaded laces.

At the height of her fame and with the demand for Paris couture at its peak, Chanel employed between two and three thousand workers during the mid- to late 1920s. She was said, however, to be a hard taskmaster and to pay poor wages. In 1927 she opened her London house. British Vogue pointed out in early June 1927 that, while the conception and feel of Chanel's current collection was essentially French, the designer had adapted

Coco Chanel Collection 1920s

Gabrielle Coco Chanel. Chanel began designing at the beginning of the twentieth century, quickly gaining the attention of the fashion world with her stylishly functional daywear and her elegant evening wear. © Conde Nast Archive/Corbis. Reproduced by

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