5 Mastering Fashion and Function for the New Woman

Ella Welch


Here is a photo of two outfits Chanel designed from the mid-twentieth century. The piece on the left is a longer, belted coat with multi-colored trim. On the right is one of Chanel’s classic suits with navy trim.
Gabrielle Chanel, French, 1883-1971, (Designer),. ca. 1962, ca. 1964, Image: 2008. Coat, Day, Suit, Day. Costume-Main Garment-Women, Costume-Outerwear-Women. Place: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://library.artstor.org/asset/ABROOKLYNIG_10312349441.

The Chanel Suit was an iconic piece of history that defined women’s escape from clothing expectations. Coco Chanel created this look to be fashionable and efficient as the suits were traditionally made of woven textile with details of silk and different hardware [1]. The suit would consist of a matching jacket with long sleeves and a knee-length skirt, as depicted above in the outfit on the right. These suits were first constructed with fabrics found in the menswear department to embody the sporty look and acted as almost a “uniform” for women that could function in any season and for all occasions [2]. Many celebrities, such as Jackie Kennedy, emphasized that the Chanel suit was a closet staple. As Chanel brought in these male-dominant materials and styles, she began to complete her goal of diffusing what society had built up for the expectancy of women’s dress. Mastering fashion and function, she would break down the long-established look of multiple layers of tight and constricting garments, introducing concepts attractive to women who were beginning work or who were tired of dressing to these certain standards.

Historical Fashion

Many are familiar with the figurine of a woman wearing a tightly strung corset, creating the ideal hourglass shape for a woman for multiple centuries. The use of the corset changed between these centuries as women originally wore them to maintain a feminine image and soon transitioned corsets to embrace the idea of modernity. [3] These corsets restricted women’s mobility, crushing their ribs, making it quite difficult to breathe, and giving control to others, usually men, as women could not manage with these limitations or take part in any physical activity. Straight front corsets [4] and hobble skirts [5] added to the uncomfortable lack of movement as well.

These expectations for women’s shape, figure, and fashion choices compelled Chanel to create her freeing pieces defying what society pictures as the perfect female. To begin, fashion is consumption, depicting one’s identity, and creating a specific culture. Previously, clothing did not have this value as it was viewed as something everyone must wear to cover up and protect, rather than what it soon came to be: gender and self-expression. Clothing is also how one conveys their social class and contributes to this material world. [6] Choosing an outfit or pieces of clothing every day is freedom individuals are granted and is an intimate and personal choice that we choose to display publicly. [7] This takes us into the exploration of Parisian haute couture [8], which defined fashion for the rest of the world. This type of fashion was established by Charles Frederick Worth[9] who also broke gender barriers by being one of the first renowned male dressmakers, a position usually dominated by females. [10] At the beginning of the twentieth century, Chanel redefined haute couture by incorporating different materials, shapes, and designs. Gabrielle Chanel [11] grew up in extreme poverty and was born out of wedlock in a hospice; her mother passed by the time she was 12, and her father consequently abandoned the children, forcing Chanel into an orphanage. [12] Her humble upbringing contrasted with many of the previous figures in “haute couture” in France. While she learned how to sew from nuns [13], those in the elite fashion industry mastered the important trade by working as skilled apprentices through multiple fashion houses. [14] Chanel herself wore masculine clothing inspired by both the men she had spent time with: Etienne Balsan [15] and “Boy” Capel. [16] Through these men, she began her appreciation for luxury, developed her ideas for incorporating men’s style, received financial assistance to launch her boutiques, and established a clientele list from high society across France. She created simple yet elegant hats that were popular among the wealthy women and soon created haute couture, specializing in the use of jersey fabric that had never been utilized before. Not only did she switch to an alternative fabric, but she began by incorporating less fabric in contrast to the previous decades where women were adorned with multiple layers of clothing, something irrational and awkward. [17] Her first couture collection launched in the fall of 1916, directly in the middle of World War I, when fabric options were limited, leaving her with jersey material. [18] During the time of war when the majority of men had left to fight, there was a power dynamic shift as women were faced with filling roles usually occupied by men. Many used Chanel’s pieces as they were thrown into the workforce and had nothing to wear that would allow them to work in these physically demanding positions. Previously, the French police outlawed the use of trousers by women in public by enacting the decree of 7 November 1800. The law was strictly enforced throughout the entire century until feminists arose, discovering their voice. [19] Officials deemed those who broke the act as someone who was attempting to cross-dress and commit fraud as they were taking advantage. [20] Trousers and pants eventually became more accepted as women trickled into the workforce during the war, as they could not complete the assigned tasks in their typical garments.

Similar movements towards a less constructed women’s dress were occurring in America as well with the introduction of the new designs made for a variety of activities and jobs. There were semi-fitted bodices that enhanced the natural waistline, form-fitting bias-cut skirts, insets, and wide sleeve holes made of cotton and lightweight linen. [21] The Mother Hubbard [22] was a popular option in the late nineteenth century as it was made to free women from corsets, identical reasoning to Chanel. [23]Not as fashionable or intricate as Chanel’s pieces, the Mother Hubbard was an everyday piece that one could wear while working or maintaining the house. The introduction of the dress occurred around the same time as the dress reform movement [24], working against the physical barrier clothing gave to women. The females in this development in America also chose to not adopt men’s clothes but rather create their versions based on the styles and materials, leading to physical and social liberation.

Here is a photo of a black, cocktail-style dress adorned with ruffles.
Gabrielle Chanel, French, 1883-1971, (Designer),. ca. 1965, Image: 2006. Dress, Cocktail. Costume-Main Garment-Women. Place: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://library.artstor.org/asset/ABROOKLYNIG_10312346510.


Through her sportier decisions with women’s fashion, Chanel reimagined femininity creating comfortable and liberating clothing that was unique, trendy, and glamorous. By merging these masculine designs with her clothing dreams, it reiterated the equality of men and women. Chanel’s clothing inspired women to escape the housewife’s expectations and prove their capabilities in the outside working world. Through her work, clothing transitioned from acting as a submissive item to culture to rather a piece of an aesthetic and social differentiation. [25]By consuming her products, one became subject to this new booming world of fashion and contributed to the change of women’s clothing.


Ella is a current first-year student at Wake Forest intending to major in Business and Enterprise Management with a minor in Psychology.

  1. Gabrielle Chanel, French, 1883-1971, (Designer),. ca. 1962, ca. 1964, Image: 2008. Coat, Day, Suit, Day. Costume-Main Garment-Women, Costume-Outerwear-Women. Place: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://library.artstor.org/asset/ABROOKLYNIG_10312349441.
  2. Chanel, “Coat and Day-Suit,” 2008.
  3. Fields, Jill. "'Fighting the Corsetless Evil': Shaping Corsets and Culture, 1900-1930." Journal of Social History 33, no. 2 (1999): 355. Accessed October 25, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3789627.
  4. Straight front corsets were introduced by the Gibson Girls. This type of corset changed the original shape as it moved the bust forwards and the hips back. See Fields, "'Fighting the Corsetless Evil'," 358.
  5. Hobble skirts were longer in length and had a narrow hem, restricting women from walking normally as they had to “hobble”. The skirt is also responsible for several deaths in the early twentieth century. It was only popular for not even a decade. The pencil skirt can be attributed to a modern version of the hobble skirt. See Fields, "'Fighting the Corsetless Evil'," 358.
  6. Villette, Solange Montagné and Irene Hardill. "Paris and Fashion: Reflections on the Role of the Parisian Fashion Industry in the Cultural Economy." The International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 30, no. 9 (2010): 462. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/01443331011072235.
  7. Evan Casey, and Deirdre Clemente. "Clothing the Contadini: Migration and Material Culture, 1890–1925." Journal of American Ethnic History 36, no. 4 (2017): 5. Accessed October 29, 2020. doi:10.5406/jamerethnhist.36.4.0005.
  8. “Haute Couture” is french for high sewing. It is a term used to describe handmade clothing that is custom fit and uses high quality and expensive materials. Haute couture is typically made for a specific client and made with extreme attentiveness to detail by superior and experienced seamstresses. See Villette, Montagné and Hardill, "Paris and Fashion," 464.
  9. An Englishmen who created this trend in the 1850s in France. He trained in London working with different high-class individuals. He developed unique ideas and designs and implemented them into trending fashion. See Villette, Montagné and Hardill, "Paris and Fashion," 465.
  10. Villette, Montagné and Hardill, "Paris and Fashion," 465.
  11. Chanel was previously a cabaret singer and received her famously known nickname “Coco” while at Moulin’s café La Rotonde. The cavalrymen of the Tenth Light House took her words from a song and referred to her as “Coco”. See Brower, Brock. 2001. “Chez Chanel.” Smithsonian 32 (4): 60.
  12. Brower, “Chez Chanel,” 60.
  13. As she was in an orphanage after she was left parentless, the nuns taught her how to sew. See Brower, “Chez Chanel,” 60.
  14. A fashion house is a fashion company that produces high-fashion clothing. The world’s top fashion houses are Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Hermes. See Villette, Montagné and Hardill. "Paris and Fashion," 468.
  15. Etienne Balsan was a wealthy French ex-cavalry officer, and Chanel lived with him at his Chateau for three years. She was able to participate in equestrian activities and hunting and was exposed to luxury. See Villette, Solange Montagné and Irene Hardill. "Paris and Fashion," 467.
  16. Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel was Chanel’s lover for a certain period of time who funded her first boutique and gave her inspiration for her designs through his Englishmen attire. See Villette, Solange Montagné and Irene Hardill. "Paris and Fashion," 467.
  17. LAIRD, DONALD A. "What Is Wrong With Men's Clothing." Scientific American 141, no. 2 (1929): 128. Accessed October 29, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24976129.
  18. Liza Hearon, “Women’s Clothing,” 100 Years, 100 Legacies, Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2014/October 31, 2018, https://graphics.wsj.com/100-legacies-from-world-war-1/womens-clothing
  19. Van Slyke, Gretchen. "Women at War: Skirting the Issue in the French Revolution." L'Esprit Créateur 37, no. 1 (1997): 33. Accessed October 29, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26288117.
  20. See Van Slyke, “Women at War,” 33.
  21. Strassel, Annemarie. "Designing Women: Feminist Methodologies in American Fashion." Women's Studies Quarterly 41, no. 1/2 (2012): 41. Accessed October 25, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23611770.
  22. A Mother Hubbard is a long, loose-fitting dress with long sleeves that aimed to cover up as much skin as possible. The name is derived from a popular nursery rhyme and was worn by women of all ages and social classes. It was later brought to Africa, South Asia, and the Pacific and is still worn, but with a variety of bright colors and patterns. See Gray, Sally Helvenston. "Searching for Mother Hubbard: Function and Fashion in Nineteenth-Century Dress." Winterthur Portfolio 48, no. 1 (2014): 31. Accessed October 25, 2020. doi:10.1086/676031.
  23. Gray, "Searching for Mother Hubbard," 32.
  24. The dress reform movement occurred from the middle to late Victorian era where women were rallying against the typical corset wear and more towards “bloomers” and other athletic wear. See Prados-Torreira, Teresa. "Humor and the Nineteenth-Century Reformer." Studies in American Humor 3, no. 1 (2017): 31.
  25. Villette, Montagné and Hardill. "Paris and Fashion,” 462.


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Gender and Sexuality Throughout World History Copyright © 2020 by Ella Welch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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