Gabriel Chanel was a French low class girl who grew up with her sister in an orphanage after her father having abandoned them there. She never intended to be neither popular not even a dress maker; her aspirations were to be able to make a living by herself without a need for a husband. Her situation was completely different from that of Ives Saint-Laurent who was a bourgeoise with very clear aims within the fashion world and whose master was Dior. The last film about his life affirms the idea that he was the most important fashion designer and changed radically women fashion, something I completely disagree with. I may advocate for Channel as being the most important and radical fashion designer for women, something these two pictures may help to clarify comparing what her contemporaries dressed and she did:
Her fashion originated in her views on the corsican: a very useless piece of underwear that limited women’s movement, freedom and comfort. She was the one to remove it allowing the female woman to move freely under her clothes, her flesh to be less carefully controlled by the corsican’s tightness and avoiding thus the formation of the predominant silhouette. The corsican may be seen as a meaningful piece of underwear linked to a particular ideas of the function of women and the representation of her body, probably, related to the decorative idea of woman in the family house, an extreme version of which is the Victorian idea of the angel of the house. The body limitations the corsican imposed show indeed the lack of movement in a woman, that is, her static place at home, and the standing out of her body which may be beautiful, decorative. The corsican’s pressure made even eating difficult, of course strong exercises too as it hindered the breathing. The New Woman at the turn of the century needed indeed to give up corsicans: the new released woman may take upon her manly duties; but even before that, the new dress very well anticipates the female role in society. The Great War served to assert this new fashion as the absence of men made women work on their husbands’ duties.
It is significant that Chanel belonged to the low class: she needed to work and to breathe freely; she loves simplicity, her dresses are no more full of decorations as she is not a decoration but a worker. Her status together with her rejection of marriage helped her to build her ideas on fashion. In 1918, she looked like that:
That is, she looked like a man. Her short hair au garçon outlining as well its practicality was another cause of criticism becoming a fashion in the 1920s. Chanel changed radically women’s fashion since then; two of her most popular dresses were the little black dress -having been a lady in black a complete unusual and distasteful idea-, and the Chanel suit, that is a work piece for ladies (being both of them reworked till today):