The Myth of Chanel and the 1920s: II - Standing Out from the Crowd

Posted by muhammad nasrudin

In November 1919 pictures of Gabrielle Chanel's chemise [evening] dress had filled the pages of Vogue ...
Unfortunately, unless I travel to the library at the Fashion Institute of Technology, there doesn't seem to be any way for me to examine the actual November 1919 issue of Vogue - only its cover is available online.  However, it seems extremely unlikely to me that there are literally pages of it devoted to Chanel.  Arrogant of me?  Perhaps.

In my studies, I have examined many periodicals and fashion plates both in person and online, and one thing that has stood out to me is that, while labeled Chanel designs do turn up here and there, they do not really become a force until the mid-1920s.  Even extant gowns with Chanel labels from before 1925 seem scarce-to-nonexistent in museum collections available online.  If she were really taking the fashion world by storm in November of 1919, why would she retreat afterward?

For example, the January 1922 issue of Good Housekeeping devotes several pages to fashion.  The first shows Premet and Jenny designs, and mentions both Jenny and Vionnet; the following show more Jenny, Paquin, Lelong, Patou, Germaine, and Alice Bernard garments.  Not a Chanel in sight.  February takes off with Patou, Lanvin, Paquin; March with Dorat, Alice Bernard, Goupy, Yteb, Paquin, Jenny, Lanvin, Drécoll ... and, at last, Chanel!

The May issue does show more Chanel: page 51 has three dress and suit designs, followed by an overblouse.  Coming back in June, Paul Caret takes center stage, followed by Lanvin, Drécoll, Paquin, Jenny, Rolande, and Germaine.  No Chanel.

Looking to another periodical, Harper's Bazaar, also in 1922, one finds similar results.  January starts off with several Chéruit ensembles for vacationers, followed by Renée, Worth, Yteb, Chanel, Jenny, a page for Lanvin, more Renée and Jenny, Lelong, Premet, and more Jenny.  Chanel's offering is a single sporty day dress.  Skipping up to March, Doucet's evening gowns top the first page, followed by Yteb, Molyneux, Jenny, Worth, Premet, Dorat, Patou, Madeleine & Madeleine, Lanvin, Lelong, Chéruit, and Soulie (a two-page spread), with most of these repeated several times.  Chanel is relatively rarely represented, although she does appear repeatedly through the whole volume and is praised.

from August, p. 51

Although skirts and waists daily grow longer here, Mademoiselle Chanel still remains a delightful exception. She clings to her short and narrow styles,* which she herself wears - how well, I hardly need say, as every one knows her, if only by sight. These suit her youthful type, especially as she generally relieves the extreme simplicity and girlishness of her appearance by adding many gorgeous strings of pearls of dazzling luster. Chanel has succeeded in making simplicity, costly simplicity, the keynote of the fashion of the day. (Caption to the previous image.)
* Note that Chanel's "short styles" are hardly what we would consider short -about two inches shorter than the fashionable 1922 length.

But the difficulty with fashion magazine text is that it praises everyone it mentions.  Taking a quote about one designer out of context makes it sound like the magazine has singled them out as the only one worthy of praise, when it really compliments each designer that is shown.  In May 1922, on a full page devoted to Callot Soeurs, the caption states:
We invariably look to Callot for the most exquisite of draped gowns, and, invariably, we are not disappointed.
Yet notes like these are ignored because nobody is looking to prove that Callot Soeurs changed the face of fashion or was the premier designer of an age.