Coco Chanel once said: “Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman there is no dress.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But if you look back over the centuries, dresses were made irrespective of the women who wore them. In the 1920s everything changed. Inspired by Poiret, Chanel took ownership of the new liberated silhouette and ran with it. In the aftermath of WW1 all naivety was lost and sexual ambiguity was embraced: hobble skirts and wide-brimmed hats were slowing women down. Coco welcomed in the leg-flicking flapper age with her shortened skirts, cropped hair, Breton stripes and sailor pants.
Her second boutique opened in 1915 in Biarritz opposite a casino, selling modern designs made from humble fabrics to aristocratic customers. In the early 1900s, jersey was a controversial fabric that was used for one purpose only. As current Chanel designer, Karl Largerfeld, explained to Vogue: “Jersey was men’s underwear material and it was much more shocking in those days because women weren’t supposed to know that men wore underwear. And Chanel made dresses from them.” Revolution was in the air.
Chanel’s powerful influence continued well into the 1930s with American Vogue likening her LBD (little black dress) to the mass popularity of the Ford motorcar in 1926. It wouldn’t be until the early 1950s that Coco would strike gold again with her iconic Chanel jacket. Its cropped length and boxed lines threw down the gauntlet, ready for combat. Her adversary? Christian Dior.
In 1947, Dior launched his “New Look” at his salon at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris. If Chanel’s designs were all about freeing women from gender constraints, Dior’s shapely silhouette keenly cinched women back into familiar feminine lines after WW2. Full skirts, nipped in waists and brimmed hats were back. Corsets and petticoats made a triumphant return. “I have designed flower women”, Dior famously declared at the time. “Mr Dior, we abhor dresses to the floor,” came the sharp response from some angry women with placards. These protests wouldn’t prevent Dior’s silhouette dominating the 1950s, however.