Explore in 360 VR the evolution of one of the most popular pieces in a woman’s wardrobe – the black dress. See how Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel got inspired to create this iconic garment. The color black has reigned in the world of fashion for decades. Discover how until the 19th century, black was only worn by widows, the working class, and elites. Today, the combination of liberating design and universal color has given fame to the iconic Coco Chanel design.
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (19 August 1883 – 10 January 1971) was a French fashion designer, Nazi spy and businesswoman. The founder and namesake of the Chanel brand, she was credited in the post-World War I era with liberating women from the constraints of the “corseted silhouette” and popularizing a sporty, casual chic as the feminine standard of style. A prolific fashion creator, Chanel extended her influence beyond couture clothing, realizing her design aesthetic in jewellery, handbags, and fragrance. Her signature scent, Chanel No. 5, has become an iconic product. She is the only fashion designer listed on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Chanel herself designed her famed interlocked-CC monogram, which has been in use since the 1920s.:211
More than any other designer of the twentieth century, Coco Chanel revised and adapted fashion to the tenets of utility and integrity of materials, tenets that are the defining features of modernism. Her emphasis on the functionalism of sportswear and her appropriations from menswear, as well as from service and military uniforms, broke with typical haute-couture dress styles and practices. Pragmatic and purposeful, her clothes were designed with realistic lifestyle applications. Chanel’s early sportswear ensembles reformed restrictive Edwardian conventions. Her jersey separates of skirts, dresses, sweaters and cardigans liberated women from the pretenses of dressing for an occasion or for an allotted time of day. Rational and versatile, they fostered self-reliance and self-expression.
Speaking of herself in the third person, Chanel confided to Salvador Dalí that “all her life, all she did was change men’s clothing into women’s: jackets, hair, neckties, wrists.”
Referencing the dress codes of early- nineteenth-century dandies such as Beau Brummel, Chanel advocated a system of dressing based on modesty, simplicity, and adaptability. Reflecting the dandy’s stark sobriety, many of her suits from the 1920s and 1930s were made in black with white or cream blouses, a color contrast that became a Chanel trademark.
Little black dress
Chanel’s “little black dress” also venerated the style of the dandy. Monastic in its austerity, it ascribed primacy to function or functions. This utility-based aesthetic, however, belied its exemplary execution, which relied on the refined, hand-sewn finishes of the couture.
Styles and materials differed for day and evening. In the 1920s, day versions were often made from jersey, silk charmeuse, or crêpe de chine and usually featured long sleeves.
Couture details such as seam binding, carefully arranged pleats, the finely finished hem of the skirt, and hand-sewn belt make this ensemble an example of Chanel’s characteristic poverty de luxe, an expensive interpretation of a simple design made of modest materials.
Evening versions of the “little black dress,” which tended to be sleeveless, were often made from layered lace or silk chiffon with asymmetric hems and scooping necklines.
This superb example shows Chanel’s acute sensibility for scooping neckline forms, always suspended from the shoulders with a cascade of the light drapery of the dress falling to knee length without detection of bust or hips. Vogue said of these Chanel dresses that they show her “art of avoiding mistakes.” That same art is what is sought by the generations of women who have counted on “the little black dress.”
Lines of top-stitching keep the seams of this dress crisp, while picot edging, a technique more associated with lingerie, is used to finish its perimeters.
Unlike rolled hems, which finish the neckline of the dress and overblouse, picot stitching creates a light but sharply defined edge while precluding the unraveling of the fabric.
The obfuscation of extraneous decoration was consistent with both day and evening versions of the “little black dress.” Even in dresses that were entirely embellished with paillettes, Chanel managed to assert an antidecorative aesthetic.
In this ensemble, the paillettes are applied in a uniform field, enhancing the garment’s monochromatic starkness as well as its straight silhouette.
Plain or embroidered, however, Chanel’s little black dress, like her separates and two- or three- piece suit, created a balance between the formal and the disciplined, the casual and the spontaneous. It was this equilibrium that ultimately came to define “the Chanel look,” a modern, practical, unpretentious style that steered the course of twentieth-century fashion.
Some of Chanel’s all-over paillette evening clothes revealed sportswear influences. Several were based on separates dressing, such as tops, skirts, and scarves, with some bodices revealing straps based on swimwear.
Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris
The Museum of Decorative Arts Paris is a museum of the decorative arts and design located in the Palais du Louvre’s western wing, known as the Pavillon de Marsan, at 107 rue de Rivoli, in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, France. It is one of three museum locations of Les Arts Décoratifs, now collectively referred to as the MAD.
The museum also hosts exhibitions of fashion, advertising, and graphic arts from its collections from the formerly separate but now defunct Musée de la Publicité and Musée de la mode et du textile.