Special Series of Female Revolutionaries: Coco Chanel

KATIE CERULLE ’22

FEATURES EDITOR

When you enter a college formal, a restaurant, a cocktail party, or any event where a dress is appropriate, the most common choice would be some form of little black dress. Dress it up or dress it down, the little black dress, abbreviated to “LBD”, is iconic for its simplicity and versatility. While so classic now, at one time, the LBD was a revolutionary idea, brought to life by Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel in the 1920s. Her new design not only changed the fashion industry, but also allowed women to examine the standards set for them in their clothing and alter their own narratives.

Debuting in 1926, American Vogue magazine published a drawing of Chanel’s little black dress, officially crediting her with the creation of the garment. Before Chanel, the color black was a color of mourning, as women could be wearing black for up to four years after their husband. Outside of mourning, women were expected to dress in conservative, bright clothing. Chanel’s greatest rival of the early 1920s, Paul Pioret, brought vivid reds, greens and blues to his line. Gabrielle did not approve of these flashy colors, she preferred black, beige, and navy blue. ‘These colors are impossible. These women, I’m bloody well going to dress them in black … I imposed black; it’s still going strong today, for black wipes out everything else around.” said Chanel.

As the dress was released, it was known to be a fashion staple among all classes of women. Especially as the Great Depression hit in 1929, pieces that were both functional, comfortable, stylish, and affordable were essential. Additionally, Chanel used black as a focal point of a fashion revolution. Changing the narrative of womens fashion as restrictive corsets, big hats and bright colors to a simple, accessorisable piece where women had the choice of how to wear it. 

As the years went on, Christian Dior released another set of LBD’s for his line, altering the original long narrow sleeves and pearls to a cinched waist and full skirt to give the dress a sexier look. It wasn’t long until many other designers continued off of their success and created alternate designs. 

Celebrities began to wear this dress on and off the screen, furthering the popularization of the design. One of the most famous little black dresses in cinematic history is, of course, Audrey Hepburn’s from the introductory scene of Breakfast at Tiffanys from 1961. This dress was designed by Hubert de Givenchy, which many wrongly claim to be the creator of this style. The iconic moment brought the dress further into mainstream culture, ensuring the permanence of the piece in every woman’s closet.

Some might question the significance of Chanel’s work, but clothing is more than just fabric you wear every day. Clothing designed for men and women was, and still is, gendered. Big fashion companies decide who should wear what, creating social constructs that are developed purely out of a created conception of what’s appropriate for who. Chanel saw this and decided to take a leap. Her courage to change an aspect of American life that was so deeply rooted in cultural stereotypes drew me to Chanel. Despite the challenges of changing an industry that seemed so stagnant in their representation of women, Chanel made the choice anyway. Her bravery allowed women to more freely represent themselves in the clothing they wore. While there is still more work to be done in creating a more equitable world of fashion, Chanel was a catalyst in creating change for women.

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