Category: Analysis

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Chanel in Context is a fashion article written by Valerie Steele, as one of the contributors in Juliet Ash and Elizabeth Wilson’s collections of fashion essays titled Chic Thrills: a fashion Reader. Valerie Steele, who was a fashion design teacher in the State University of New York at the time when these collections were compiled, has critically analyzed Chanel’s contributions in the fashions design industry in the 1920s (Ash and Wilson 1992, p. 241). Her main aim was to present Chanel’s real contributions as opposed to the unfounded records of the previous literatures.

Analysis and Evaluation

In this late 1980s work, Steele sought to expose the role Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel played in ushering women into modernity through fashion design, during the crisis resulting from World War I (Houlscher 1998, p. 173 ). The author’s major role was to set the records straight about this controversial fashion designer, through a well researched and impartial article. To fashion readers, Steele presents both views from the critics and supporters of Chanel’s works and contribution in the French fashion industry. The author endeavored to enlighten her fashion fanatic audience about the true accounts of fashion design revolution in the early decades of the twentieth century and Chanel’s works in this context (Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel).  

According to Steele, in Ash & Wilson (1992, p. 118), the recorded accounts of Chanel’s contributions to the modern fashion are nothing more than myths and fictions which needed to be studied in historical context, if her accurate picture was to be established. The famous and unique pictures of Chanel’s works could not be achieved in isolation, without any influence from the prevailing culture. By this statement, Steele implies that Chanel developed her sartorial ideas from her contemporaries of the twentieth century (Roux 2005, p. 147).  

Given that Chanel was born in 1883, a period when most of the French women were working in the needle trades, she became a seamstress. The prevailing women’s economic condition would mostly likely drive any working class woman to the fashion industry (Ash &Wilson 1992, p. 118). However, Chanel’s industrious character saw her open her personal couture house in 1992. Steele attributes this quick progress to Chanel’s early demimondaine lifestyle (Baudot & Chanel 1996, p. 4).

However, the author exempt Chanel from other environmental influence since some of her new styles, such as the short skirts and male-like female suits, only portrays her lifestyle that was restricted by traditional modesty or propriety issues. This positive view of Chanel’s innovative designs affirms Beilenson & Kaufman (2009, p. 22) considerations about her. The latter includes Chanel among the women who dared to face the conservative nature of traditional culture. Through her fashion designs, Chanel freed women from the confined dress codes and popularized casual and liberal dressing (Wintle 2007, p. 101).

As opposed to most designers of her time, Chanel rejected the traditional fashions that were meant to extremely expose women’s feminine structure. She always dressed to simulate a strong independent man, separating her from middle-class feminists (Ash & Wilson 1992, p. 119). Steele describes Chanel as her own best model. Sportswear design also formed major part of Chanel’s popularity, which earned her respect from fellow designers such as Vionnet (Chanel skirt suit on Etsy). Despite this fact, the author rejects Chanel as the originator of such designs since Paul Poiret had pioneered women trousers.

In order to illuminate the collaborative work in fashion design innovation, Steele highlights other designers who shaped the fashion design of the 1920s, a part from Chanel. Among these designers, Jean Paul also designed sportswear resembling Chanel’s design though he is not highly illuminated as Chanel (Chanel Sportswear). Chanel took advantage of her image as a modern woman to position herself as the leading champion for women’s modernization through fashion design. Other designers of her time lacked this opportunity and that why Chanel outshined them.

Even though Steele highlighted the fact that men dominated this industry, the women played the technical part of transforming men’s ideas into actual clothes. It is this technical skill of women is what drove the modernity through fashion design. Continuous progress in the fashion industry led to equal competition between the female and male couturiers, where female couturiers employed as many workers as their male counterparts (Ash & Wilson 1992, p. 120).

Chanel’s combination of masculine role, of being a fashion genius, with her feminine role of fashion leader made her standout as a woman to emulate by others (Manlow 2007, p. ). She moved from just being a dressmaker to a celebrity among women, even though her fellow designers like Vionnet questioned her credibility. It is utterly impossible to refute Chanel’s contribution in the fashion industry given the fact the she only woman who ran a flourishing couture house after the depression of World War II (Ash & Wilson 1992, p. 120).


From Steele’s work, one is able to perceive Chanel’s tremendous work in leading women’s revolution into modernity. Against the author’s main intention of refuting Chanel’s role in the invention of modern dress designs, Chanel in Context has credited the modern fashion to Chanel. The author limited the scope of this study to the resources that disputes the authority of Chanel in revolutionizing the fashion industry. This is done without any exaggerations of Chanel’s strengths as has been the case in previous fashion design literatures.

This is a corrective and contextualized article that not only highlights Chanel’s contributions but also explores the factors that might have propelled her progress. Instead of simply acknowledging her as the first female to open a couture house, Steele points at her previous demimondaine lifestyle as an enabling factor. Chanel is credited for the popularity of the 1920s fashion design even though she might have not been the sole and genius inventor of this era.

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