As one of the most successful fashion houses in existence, Chanel owes much to the templates first laid down by its founder – Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel. Some of her most celebrated designs, such as the two-piece suit, the little black dress and the quilted handbag, remain in vogue to this day.
In Gabrielle Chanel, ORIOLE CULLEN showcase Chanel’s most notable designs from her 60 years in fashion.
In this extract we learn about her connection with a fabric that was a British favourite, tweed.
As Chanel honed her style, a recognisable innovation was her fashionable tweed sport suits. Relaxed jackets and practical skirts were twinned with complementary jersey blouses. The tweed suit for women was not her invention; a mainstay for sport and outdoor pursuits, it had been popular in women’s wardrobes since the 19th century, particularly in Britain where it was referred to as a tailor-made.
In the 1920s Chanel would be the one to make tweed fashionable, to take it from the countryside and transform it for the city. Originating in the 18th century in Scotland, tweed was traditionally woven from the fleece of Cheviot sheep, with colours from natural dyes, drawn from the landscape. It was a practical, warm, weighty fabric that repelled rain. Its earthy colours helped wearers blend into the scenery and it was therefore popular with those who enjoyed hunting and shooting expeditions.
This included Chanel’s friend Lombardi as well as Chanel herself. Due to her aristocratic family background and friendship with the Prince of Wales, Lombardi, who worked for Chanel in the 1920s as a press officer, was extremely well connected in British society. Like Chanel, she was known to adapt menswear garments for her own use. Discussing tweed fashion in 1928, The Graphic magazine noted:
The best tweed wearer of all was Miss Vera Arkwright (Mrs Bate). She was not only the first wearer of tweeds in London but the first wearer of the jumper we all wore for five years which was nothing else but a man’s vest with a collar put on it. She afterwards became, and still is, the foremost of the English representatives in Paris for Chanel, and I suppose it is through her that English clothes began to be taken seriously in Paris.
Chanel’s relationship with the Duke of Westminster brought her into the centre of these British sporting pursuits, including fishing, hunting and golf at his various estates in Cheshire, Scotland and Mimizan in France. She came into contact with many members of the British aristocracy such as Winston Churchill, with whom she remained lifelong friends. Her enthusiasm for these sporting activities was remarked on by Churchill when writing to his wife from the Duke’s Scottish retreat Stack Lodge: ‘Coco is here in place of Violet [the Duke’s second wife]. She fishes from morn till night, & in two months has killed 50 salmon. She is vy [very] agreeable – really a gt [great] & strong being fit to rule a man or an Empire’.
In keeping with British tradition, in 1925 Chanel went to Savile Row tailors Huntsman, to order herself several pairs of riding breeches in twill and whipcord, and a grey riding skirt. She also ordered a black whipcord skirt and breeches, essentially just the bottom half of a traditional riding habit. She probably paired these with a jacket of her own making. A 1928 photograph of Chanel attired for a hunt with Winston Churchill and his son Randolph shows her in a classic riding skirt and boots along with a very Chanel-style soft unstructured jacket, fastened with a small leather belt around the waist. In December 1931 appeared in Tatler magazine similarly attired in classic riding skirt and breeches, with a Chanel yellow blouse, necktie and navy gaberdine jacket.
Tweed remained the British fabric of fascination for Chanel and a mainstay in her collections. She used it from the early 1920s for daywear, such as the suit of ‘English herring-bone tweed in tan and white’ worn by actress Ina Claire in Vogue in 1924.
Drawn to the natural uneven qualities of the fabric and keen to investigate the possibilities of how it could be developed, Chanel commenced a professional relationship with tweed-maker William Linton of Carlisle in the mid-1920s. With Linton she began to experiment with producing special tweeds with a soft handle that would work with her designs. In October 1927 Vogue reported that Chanel ‘whose clothes are invariably simple, practical and beautiful, is making a feature of models of Scotch tweed in her recent collections’ (no.20).
Chanel would later claim: ‘It was me who taught the Scots how to make lightweight tweeds. I promise you I had a tough time convincing them!’ The reality was most likely a combination of Chanel’s ideas and the weavers’ expertise.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Oriole Cullen is a curator and is Head of Modern Textiles and Fashion at the Victoria and Albert museum, London. In 2019, Cullen curated the museum’s Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibition. In 2009, co-curated Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones with Stephen Jones at the Victoria and Albert museum and authored the accompanying publication.
Prior to this, Cullen worked as curator for Dress and Decorative Arts at the Museum of London where she co-curated The London Look: Fashion from Street to Catwalk (2004)