A History Lesson on…Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel vs. Elsa Schiaparelli

Source: (Left Image) John Phillips/Time LIFE Pictures/Getty Images, (Right Image) Business of Fashion

This essay sets out to analyse the comparing and contrasting features of two designers, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, during the same period. It will argue that Chanel had an industry-oriented approach towards fashion, whereas Schiaparelli was art-oriented in her designs, yet both were equally innovative in doing so. Through reference to Ingrid Loschek’s theory concerning context crossing and its relation to innovation, this essay will explore how Chanel’s implementation of menswear into womenswear and Schiaparelli’s incorporation of artistic motifs in her designs created innovative fashion. It also considers how both designers’ work closely related to the aesthetic, social and cultural changes of their time.

To understand the impact of Chanel and Schiaparelli’s designs during the 1920s to the 1930s it is important to understand the historical context that informed the period. The interwar period – from World War One to World War Two – was a fundamental period of change that consequently influenced women’s dress. Women entered the workforce, as a result of the shortage of men sent to fight in the Great War. Women were undertaking roles from which they were banned previously and considered “outside their physical and mental ability” (Marly 1986, 143). Women’s dress changed significantly in large part by the transformation of women’s traditional role in society (Marly 1986, 143). According to Palomo-Lovinski (2010, 30) a “burgeoning spirit of modernism” fostered changes in women’s status within society. This is reflected in the abandonment of corsets that were associated with the Victorian woman (Palomo-Lovinski 2010, 30). The ‘New Woman’, in contrast to the Victorian woman, emerged at the end of World War One. ‘The New Woman’ defied social norms, wore comfortable and practical clothes, decided when to marry and have children, earned an education and became financially independent (Ferrero-Regis 2016). Their manners and morals were in stark contrast to previous generations (Freedman 1974, 373). It was a result of the liberation women gained in the 1920s (Fisher 2003, 35). In addition, there was “a cultural reversal of attitudes towards sexuality”, whereby the ‘New Woman’ was allowed to sample both a marriage and a career (Fisher 2003, 34). According to Frederick Lewis Allen, “The new woman wanted the same freedom of movement that men had…sexual independence was merely the most sensational aspect of the generally altered status of women.” (Freedman 1974, 373). Their legal and economic position had improved allowing women to become the “social and economic equals of men” (Freedman 1974, 373). This economic autonomy for women led to a measure of personal freedom (Fisher 2003, 34). These factors led to women’s appearance and demeanour being altered during this period, so as to highlight their independence and allure (Fisher 2003, 33). As James Laver noted (Fisher 2003, 33), “A new type of woman had come into existence. The new erotic idea was androgyne: girls strove to look as much like boys as possible”. ‘The New Woman’ and the fashions associated with the concept is directly related to the concept of the ‘la garconne’. The ‘la garconne’ was derived from a 1922 novel where the central character was a flapper. The ‘flapper’ is a woman who is educated, works, plays sports, and has hair cut short like a bob (Ferrero-Regis 2016). ‘La garconne’ influenced a generation of women in their fashion choices and “style became inextricably linked to notions of modernity and emancipation” (Ferrero-Regis 2016). Furthermore, this period was dominated by female couturiers of which included Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli and was called ‘the golden age of the couturier’ (Steele 1992, 122). These female designers used fashion to construct new modern identities (Arnold 2010, 492). Despite vast approaches to fashion during the same period, the social and cultural changes informed both of Chanel and Schiaparelli’s designs similarly. Elsa Schiaparelli evoked the concept of modernity in her designs, similar to that of Chanel, who embodied the ‘modern’ woman and demonstrated this in her designs. Both of their designs were considered innovative because of context crossing – Chanel incorporated the menswear elements that were a direct result of the changing role of women in society, whilst Schiaparelli’s artistic motifs represented the Surrealist and Dadaism movements of the time.


During the 1920s Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel approached fashion with an industry-oriented perspective by incorporating menswear elements into womenswear, which can be seen as innovative. Chanel’s implementation of menswear into womenswear is representative of the changing role of women during the 1920s. The impact Chanel had on fashion included the democratisation of dress; appropriation of masculine elements; use of middle class dress and materials; modernist, streamlined aesthetic; and the proposal of the new ‘leisure style’ (Ferrero-Regis 2016). Ingrid Loschek’s (2009) theory explains that innovation is understood as a result of context crossing. Crossing contexts, “represent an ability to construct relations between unconnected idea of structures, that is to see inspiring links between separate phenomena”. This is exemplified through Chanel’s incorporation of menswear into womenswear. Whilst other designers may have used elements of menswear for women, it was not to the largest extent that Chanel did (Palomo-Lovinski 2010, 32). Chanel was innovative in doing for women’s dress what the English aristocrats and dandies had done hundred years previously for men’s dress (Wilson 2011, 40). She adapted sportswear to daily life and capitalized on the ‘feminizing of masculine fashion’ (Wilson 2011, 40). In particular, the use of masculine styles and sportswear in her designs was seen to be influenced by the garments the Duke of Westminster and his aristocratic circle wore (Steele 2010, 139). Moreover, she utilised fabrics that were predominantly used for menswear such as indigenous British fabrics including Scottish tweed and woollens (Fogg and Steele 2013, 223). The most noted innovative use of fabrics was jersey, once only used for men’s underwear (English 2010, 22). A clear example of crossing contexts, Chanel combined jersey with elegant trims and buttons (English 2010, 22), thus creating new meaning. Furthermore, the use of sweaters, jersey dresses, and suits “subverted the idea of fashion as display” (Wilson 2011, 40), which formed the basis of her industry-oriented approach to fashion. Chanel’s jersey fashions were striking in their simplicity and modernity (Steele 2010, 139). Additionally, masculine apparel Chanel used demonstrates intertwining contexts by including berets, reefer jackets, mechanics’ dungarees, stonemasons’ neckerchiefs, and sailor suits in her designs (Steele 2010, 139). The use of menswear elements into womenswear can be said to be reflective of the ‘New Woman’ and its association with liberation and emancipation. This context crossing can be closely aligned with the notion that to “dress like a man in public was the ultimate in liberation” (Cawthorne 1998, 57), something of which women experienced during this period. The androgyny of clothing was “a vogue spurred on by women’s growing role in the American workplace and their demand for comfortable frocks” (Fisher 2003, 69), of which Chanel emphasised in her designs. It is considered that she emancipated women’s dress through comfort and practicality and created a ‘total look’ (English 2010, 22). Her sportswear designs were to complement the active lives wealthy women led (Steele 2010, 139). The understatement of Chanel’s clothes was considered innovative. In addition, androgynous clothing mirrored women’s fight to be equal to those of men (Fisher 2003, 69). The boyish fashion silhouette was nicknamed ‘la garconne’ after a 1922 novel by Victor Margueritte whose heroine “personified the emancipated, uninhibited modern woman” (Troy 2002, 313). Furthermore, Chanel’s aesthetic was to clothe women in modernity (Arnold 2010, 492). According to Cecil Beaton, Chanel was the personification of modernity due to “her marvellous balance between femininity and boyish simplicity…congruent to the latest ideal that women had created for themselves” (Wilson 2011, 168). Furthermore, according to Elizabeth Wilson, “fashion is dress in which the key feature is rapid and continual changing of styles and that fashion in a sense is a change” (Parkins 2012, 11). Indeed, that “change is popularly figured in the fashion world as a constant orientation to the ‘new’, as if fashion were relentlessly innovative” (Parkins 2012, 11). It can be said that by transferring menswear to womenswear and giving it a new concept shows how meaning can be displaced, as exemplified in Chanel’s innovative designs.

Whereby Chanel had an industrial-oriented approach, Elsa Schiaparelli approached fashion during the 1920s-1930s with an art-oriented focus which was considered innovative of her time. Whilst the inter-war period compared Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli against each other, their approaches to design were in stark contrast. Chanel viewed dressmaking as a profession, whilst Schiaparelli regarded it as an art (Blum 1947, 10). Schiaparelli’s belief was that designed fashion is an art (Koda, Bolton and Therman 2012, preface). Schiaparelli said, “Dress designing, incidentally, is to me not a profession but an art.” (Gibson 2003, 48). Schiaparelli’s belief was that the garment was the place for artistic expression rather than the medium for the couturier’s craft (Martin 1989, 198). Schiaparelli’s designs highlighted her background as an artist, rather than a dressmaker (English 2010, 24), and were a reflection of the “zeitgeist of the 1930s in Paris, a time of when a number of Surrealist artists were working in and interacting with the world of fashion” (Blum 1947, 121). During the beginning of the 20th century there was a clear link between the fine arts and dress as many leading couturiers associated with artists (Nunn 1984, 174). During this period, fashion design reflected many of the same artistic developments that art and literature focused on (Palomo-Lovinski 2010, 160). These artistic movements in the 1920s and 30s included surrealism and Dadaism. In the 1930s, it was Schiaparelli who linked fine art even more closely to dress (Nunn 1984, 174). The Surrealist movement had begun in the early 20s and its use of fantasy and unexpected juxtaposition impacted Schiaparelli, which resulted in turning to contemporary artists for her designs (Marly 1986, 153). Where Chanel incorporated elements of menswear into womenswear, Schiaparelli implemented elements of surrealism into her designs. She introduced ideas of surrealism into her designs as well as collaborated with artists such as Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau and Christian Berard. The trompe l’oeil sweater in 1928, for which Schiaparelli became renowned for, marked the start of the designer’s relationship between art and fashion. The “simple, hand knitted garment and its direct, graphic image point to a more relaxed attitude to informal wear for women” (Wilcox and Mendes 2009, 96). The “geometric, ‘stepped’ quality of the bow’s curved outlines is an unavoidable technical feature of hand knitting” (Wilcox and Mendes 2009, 96). The designer’s ‘trompe l’oeil sweater’ hints at her later involvement with the Surrealist movement (Wilcox and Mendes 2009, 96). The sweater was simple in style but at the neck it featured a white bow looking like a tied scarf (Cawthorne 1998, 77). The novel, decorative treatment looked completely new and different and injected an element of humour when everyone was wearing serious, minimalist clothing (Cawthorne 1998, 77). Whilst sportswear played a role early in Schiaparelli’s career (Blum 1947, 15), her relationship with artists and the subsequent work that came of it were what marked the designer’s career and highlighted her innovative work in the 1930s. Yet, even the “most simple and minimalist garments often contained small elements of construction that shared a playful, or even absurd sensibility with the surrealists” (Parkins 2012, 84). Schiaparelli created garments that became Surrealist objects themselves (Blum 1947, 121). Implementing Surrealist art motifs into her designs, Schiaparelli transformed “the mundane and ordinary into the strangely beautiful and contradictory” (Blum 1947, 121). She was successful in identifying and tapping into popular visual culture and exploiting its successes (Gibson 2003, 48), a concept expored in Loschek’s theory of innovation. The results of her collaborations with Salvador Dali were viewed as radical by the fashion press of the 1930s (Gibson 2003, 48). A 1932 profile in Harper’s Bazaar noted that Schiaparelli, “being thoroughly modern, she gives her clothes the essence of modern architecture, modern thought, and modern movement”. This “characterization, like others, connected Schiaparelli’s distinctiveness to her innovative qualities and seized upon her connections with various artistic modernists as proof of her relevance to the now” (Parkins 2012, 87). The evidence for her modernity is her surrealist designs and her relationships with artistic ‘revolutionaries’ (Parkins 2012, 87). There are a large number of Schiaparelli designs that incorporated artistic elements. Namely, her relationship with Salvador Dali, which began in 1936, resulted in a series of garments and accessories that included striking designs such as a chest of drawer suits, an evening dress with a lobster print and a shoe hat and suit from 1937, and an evening dress with a tear design from 1938 (Steele 2010, 620). Dali’s surrealist painting Anthropomorphic Cabinet (Image 1) was exemplified as the drawer-like pockets on a Schiaparelli suit (Image 2) (Blum 1947, 121).

Image 2: Salvador Dali’s Anthropomorphic Cabinet, 1936.
Image 2: A photograph of Schiaparelli’s drawer jacket inspired by Dali’s Anthropomorphic Cabinet painting. Retrieved from Vogue Archive, September 15, 1936, pg. 70

Lobsters started appearing as a motif in Dali’s work in 1934 (Blum 1947, 135). Schiaparelli created the lobster dress in 1937, a “splendid giant lobster in an organdie field with parsley sprigs” (Martin 1989, 205). Dali’s lobster fully involved Schiaparelli in the Surrealist vocabulary of forms, offering the crustacean as aesthetic and animal surrogate of female sexuality (Martin 1989, 205). Dali designed the textile for Schiaparelli’s tear dress to create an illusion that made it appear it had been torn repeatedly (Martin 1989, 206). The application of the ‘tear’ to couture was considered an “insane and wild premise” (Martin 1989, 206). An additional example of innovation was the use of a zip fastener (Nunn 1984, 174). While other designers were using zippers simply as a fastener, Schiaparelli utilised to create a visual interest in garments (Kellegg et al. 2002, 271). Schiaparelli’s innovation also lay in her ability to marry the familiar with the unexpected and the pretty with the grotesque (Madsen 2015, 282). “Good design is always on a tightrope of bad taste”, she said (Madsen 2015, 282). Schiaparelli’s designs reinforced the silhouette of the 1930s where slim lines replaced the loose, low-waists of the 1920s, bodices became shorter and skirts were lengthened to mid-calf (English 2010, 24). Schiaparelli’s work was spurred by themes that related closely to the changing status of women in the inter-war years, as well as to the avant-garde discourse of the surrealist artists (Steele 2010, 619). As Loschek (2009) states in her theory of context crossing and its relation to innovation, “clothing is convincing when it echoes the zeitgeist and mood of the times”. This is exemplified in Schiaparelli’s art-oriented approach during the 1920s to the 1930s, where she created designs that reflected the Surrealism artistic movement occurring with artists such as Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. Schiaparelli was innovative in that she was the first prominent designer to “fuse contradictions to arrive at something new”, as outlined in Loschek’s theory. Therefore, Schiaparelli’s can be seen to have been innovative in approaching fashion with an art-oriented focus in the 1920s to the 1930s.


 Thus in conclusion, the designs of Schiaparelli and Chanel can be seen as innovative according to the outlines in Loschek’s theory of ‘context crossing’. Both designers took from one context – Chanel with menswear, Schiaparelli with art – and put it into another context, which was fashion. This essay has argued that Elsa Schiaparelli and Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel were both innovative during the same period, yet their approach to fashion differed. Chanel was innovative in context crossing, whereby she applied menswear elements into womenswear giving it a new meaning. In stark contrast, artistic motifs closely associated with the Surrealist and Dadaism movements were utilised by Schiaparelli in her designs.

Reference List

Koda, Harold, Andrew Bolton, and Judith Therman. 2012. Schiaparelli & Prada: impossible conversations. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: London, New York and New Haven.


Blum, Dilys. 1947. Shocking: the art and fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli. Philadelphia Museum of Art: New Haven, London and Philadelphia.


Wilson, Elizabeth. 2011. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd: London.


Arnold, Rebecca. 2010. In The Fashion History Reader: Global Perspectives edited by Riello, Giorgio and Peter McNeil.


Nunn, Joan. 1984. Fashion in Costume: 1200-1980. The Herbert Press Ltd: London.


Troy, Nancy J. 2002. Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion. n.p.:MIT Press


Madsen, Axel. 2015. Chanel. Open Road Distribution: New York. Accessed May 30.


Parkins, Ilya. 2012. Poiret, Dior and Schiaparelli: fashion, femininity and modernity. Bloomsbury Publishing: London.


Gibson, Robyn. 2003. “Schiaparelli, Surrealism and the Desk Suit.” Dress: The Journal of the Costume Society of American 30 (1): 48-58. Accessed May 30 2016. http://www-tandfonline-com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/loi/ydre20#.V16W7FekelI


English, Bonnie. 2010. Fashion: The 50 Most Influential Designers of all time. Barron’s Educational Series, Inc: London.


Wilcox, Claire and Valerie D. Mendes. 2009. Twentieth-Century Fashion in Detail. V&A Publications: London.


Kellegg, Ann T., Amy T. Peterson, Stefani Bay and Natalie Swindell. 2002. In an influential fashion: an encyclopaedia of nineteenth- and twentieth-century fashion designers and retailers who transformed dress. Greenwood Press: Wesport.


Steele, Valerie. 2010. The Berg Companion to fashion. Berg: Oxford.


Marly, Diana de. 1986. The History of Haute Couture 1850-1950. Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.: New York.


Palomo-Lovinski, Noel. 2010. The world’s most influential designers. A&C Black Publishers: London.


Cawthorne, Nigel. 1998. Key moments in fashion: the evolution of style. Hamlyn: London.


Fogg, Marnie and Valerie Steele. 2013. Fashion: the whole story. Thames & Hudson: London.


Freedman, Estelle B. 1974. “The New Woman: Changing Views of Women in the 1920s”. The Journal of American History 61 (2): 372-393. Accessed May 30 2016. http://www.jstor.org.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/stable/1903954?pq-origsite=summon&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents


Ferrero-Regis, Tiziana. 2016. “Chanel and Vionnet: Week 11 Lecture Notes.” Accessed 17 May 2016. https://blackboard.qut.edu.au/bbcswebdav/pid-6309852-dt-content-rid-6271521_1/courses/DFB303_16se1/WEEK%2011%20-%20chanel%20and%20vionnet.pdf


Fisher, Lucy. 2003. Designing women: Cinema, Art Deco and The Female Form. New York: Columbia University Press.


Steele, Valerie. 1992. “Chanel in Context”. In Chic thrills: a fashion reader, 118-126. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Loschek, Ingrid. 2009. When clothes become fashion: design and innovation systems. New York: Berg Publishers.


Martin, Richard. 1989. Fashion and Surrealism. London: Thames and Hudson.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: