The Myth of Chanel and the 1920s: IV - The Sole Survivors

Posted by muhammad nasrudin

One other French designer, Madeleine Vionnet, managed to survive the transition through the war years and become part of the revolution in fashion.
The unfortunate truth is that Chanel and Vionnet have come through history with somewhat undeserved reputations.  They are remembered, and are therefore considered to have been the leading two couturiers - because why would they be the only two well-remembered designers of the 1920s if they weren't at the top of the game?  But the idea is easily refuted with a little research.

"Longchamp (II), or, She's lost!", Gazette du Bon Ton, 1915; NYPL 824772
(Speaking of research - I keep going back and forth over whether or not I should cite sources. It's more professional to do so, but then, the purpose of citations is to let readers view your sources for themselves.  In an online format, however, a link to the exact page I would have cited streamlines the text and lets the reader skip a step in the process.  So please do click the links for published, academic information on these topics!)

The following is a list of couture houses that survived WWI.  I was going to write it out in prose, but it's lengthy, and perhaps makes the point better this way.  The list is not complete - there are a number of fashion houses of the 1920s that I simply cannot find enough information on to present here.


Doucet (1871-1929, Jacques Doucet's death; merged with Doeuillet; Drécoll-Doeuillet closed in the 1930s)
Redfern (1871, inclusion of women's dress-1932)
Worth (1871-1956)
Paquin (1891-1956)
Lucile (1894-1922, end of Lady Duff Gordon's association with house; Lucile closed soon after)
Callot Soeurs (1895-1939)
Drécoll (1896 (Vienna), 1902 (Paris)-1930, merged with Beer; 1931, merged with Agnes)
Agnes (1898-1931, merged with Drécoll)
Boué Soeurs (1899-1937, re-opened, closed again in 1950s)
Doeuillet (1900-1928, his death; merged with Drécoll)
Poiret (1903-1929)
Beer (1905-1929 – merged with Drécoll)
Chéruit (1906-1935)
Jenny (1908/1911-1938)
Lanvin (1909-)
Patou (1910 (as Maison Parry)-1987)
Premet (1911-1931)
Vionnet (1912-1939)
Chanel (1913-)

Surviving the first war was not easy.  Poiret is known as one house that suffered greatly from it: Paul Poiret put fashion on hold to design for the military, which had a noticeable effect on his family's finances, and was attacked for his connections to the Austrian Wiener Werkstätte artistic community.  The story of his fall - how he was unable to cope with the changed times after the war - is legendary, but when one considers that Maison Poiret didn't close until 1929, a full decade after the end of the war, the story has to be made less extreme; a more gradual downfall, a more modest lack of success.

Postcard from Biarritz, ca. 1905; eBay
Chanel's own success during the war can be largely attributed to the fact that, at that time, she was based in Deauville and Biarritz - resort towns - rather than solely war-torn Paris.  Biarritz was an especially profitable place for a high-end designer as it was situated near neutral Spain, assuring her a wealthy tourist clientele, and apparently hosted no real competition in her market.

The end of the 1920s proved to be a difficult time for several top couturiers.  Doucet, Redfern, Drécoll, Agnes, Doeuillet, Beer, Poiret, and Premet all closed or merged around the time of the disastrous stock market crash that affected the world's economy.  The luxury market did not completely implode, but customers were in shorter supply than they had previously been, increasing competition.  This would be a much more appropriate setting for a narrative about the true merits and timeliness of various designers determining their success (although, as with the more common narrative, it would still not be entirely accurate - the ages and years of retirement/death of the original driving forces behind these houses also plays a part.)  A second round of these long-lasting houses were culled with or shortly before the outbreak of World War II: Callot Soeurs, Boué Soeurs, Vionnet, Chéruit.  (Many of the fashion houses, including Chanel, shut down during the course of the war, but these did not re-open.)

"Callot patterns her gowns with traceries of the Italian Renaissance", Harper's Bazaar, Nov. 1922
Gabrielle Chanel's real accomplishment, then, was outlasting the second world war - but as this survival is far less flattering to her, it frequently is ignored.  It is a fact that she engaged in a romantic affair with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer and spy more than ten years younger than herself; her actual political sympathies are less certain.  She did take advantage of the Nazi occupation in her fight with the Jewish directors of her perfume house, which is reprehensible.  There is evidence that she herself was actually a spy, running missions to Madrid and Germany and writing letters to Churchill ... in order to bring about the release of friends and relations and a peace, respectively.  She was not a true believer in the cause, but her actions have been unjustly drowned out by the glow of her reputation.  Chanel used her connections to keep herself living in excessive style at the Ritz with very high ranking Nazi officers while the rest of France suffered, then used different connections to bury the truth after the war ended.

If the story of how Gabrielle Chanel managed to remain comfortable and in business were fully known and considered as part of the reason for her success, I believe it would rankle less with me - but the way that Chanel's story is presented as "she emerged from the shambles of the fashion world after World War One, fully formed as a wildly successful couturier entirely on the basis of her skills" is rather insulting to the designers who did not collaborate with Nazis for their own benefit.