Whether it’s a floral skirt, a black corset or even the fashion taboo of socks and sandals, the clothes we choose to wear are an expression of ourselves, suiting our mood and personal style. In these daily choices we act as an extension of the designer’s initial aim, bringing their message to life. We also form our own unique meaning behind these garments from the experiences we have wearing them. The clothing and accessories shown at the recent exhibition, ‘Dreaming of Chanel’, at the Queensland University of Technology Art Museum, are from the Darnell collection owned by Charlotte Smith. They are seen as exceptional designs, not just for their eternal beauty, but for the insight they give into society and women’s beliefs from the 19th century on. The pieces show what was valued, seen as attractive, appropriate dress, and thus highlight women’s role during this era.1 Here fashion has been extended from being mere design, to become part of the wearers’ and Western culture’s history.
As indicated by the exhibition’s title, many women dream of owning an original piece designed by one of the most influential women of the 20th century, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel.2 Her works are objects of desire, almost as much as Picasso’s or Warhol’s. ‘Unimpeded by social convention’, from the start of the 1920s she daringly moved away from excessive and elaborate clothes.3 Chanel popularised masculine and practical attire with her pants, sporting wear and suits designs. Releasing her first suits in her 1954 post-war comeback collection, Chanel focused on quality, comfort and elegance while still pushing boundaries.4 Today, women still covet the iconic and timeless classic pink ‘Chanel Suit’ (c.1960), its beauty originating from simple elegance and its universal projection of a strong female image.5 Unified in a soft pink, the colour immediately suggests femininity, however, with the absence of unnecessary decorative material, the matching sleek skirt and three-clasped jacket replicates the masculine lines of a straight-cut male suit. Chanel intended her suits to reflect the strength and new-found liberation of women gained during the Second World War. She was able to enhance the image of the wearer by presenting her to others as powerful, successful, but also as refined and well-dressed, through the suit’s visual elements. Chanel had the ability to create loved designs while also achieving work which is deemed by contemporary designers, collectors and women of the world not only as a fashion symbol, but as art.
‘Chanel Suit’ and the David Jones designed, ‘Ensemble’ (1970-1973) both illustrate the progression of women in Western culture over the last two centuries.6 As hemlines rose and pieces became bolder, designers were reacting to the empowerment women were experiencing. As clothing is the most obvious reflection of a woman’s character and role, designers were required to mirror the new positions women were attaining in the style of female garments. ‘Chanel Suit’, as mentioned previously, incorporated features associated with male clothes in order to give the illusion of strength and subtle masculinity. According to Charlotte Smith, Chanel had felt inequality, as ‘a woman who in a very male-dominated world could come up with something very different’.7 Hence her works were more than just material and buttons, they were her means of expressing her personal fight as an early career woman. As a pantsuit, ‘Ensemble’ took the next step. Traditionally only worn by males, pants signified that women wanted and were achieving gender equality. By wearing pants, just as males have done for centuries in Western culture, women encouraged the view that they were equally capable of fulfilling duties in the workforce. The vibrant and eye-catching red, white and navy blue patterning of ‘Ensemble’, too, is forward thinking. With such colours ‘Ensemble’ was intended to make a blatant statement about the wearer: I’m a woman and I can take on male roles. Clothes, such as ‘Chanel Suit’ and ‘Ensemble’, are not only important in showing the change in women’s position in society, but also because they reflected the wearer’s own beliefs.
Besides the beauty and symbolism of fashion, garments gain deeper meaning from their attachment to the wearer. Considering this, clothes continuously develop from the point of purchase each time the apparel is worn; each new day strengthens the emotional connection. ‘Slippers’ (c.1820) is an example in the collection which encapsulates this notion of enriching the value of fashion items through wear.8 The previous owner of the ‘Slippers’, Abigail Marino, was reminded of the evening when she met her husband whenever she looked at these dancing shoes.9 As a result of this memory, her shoes were no longer a fashion accessory but a symbol of her marriage and youth, extending beyond meaningless monetary value. As the wearer influences the symbolism of their clothing, and as they are influenced by the clothing, they become both the artist and the audience. They develop the representation of the apparel by wearing it, while also experiencing the joys of recalling previous times they have worn the clothing.
The garments shown in ‘Dreaming of Chanel’ are more than just stunning examples of work from leading designers. Each item enhances the external and internal features of the owner, as these clothes complement the wearer’s beauty while reflecting their personality. As Chanel said herself, ‘fashion is not something that exists in dresses only … fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening’, it becomes part of our identity.10 Our clothes symbolise memories of the past which have shaped us and consequently are important in our lives. Within this context, sporting stripes and spots simultaneously cannot be considered ugly, but rather should be viewed as an abstract or post-modern work with a message and value that may not be clear to others, but may have a deeper beauty to the wearer.
1. The Galleries, Dreaming of Chanel, 2010. http://www.thegaleries.com/blog/article/dreaming-of-chanel (accessed 10 October 2011).
2. Krick, Jessa, ‘Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883–1971) and the House of Chanel’, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, 2011. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chnl/hd_chnl.htm (accessed 10 & 27 October 2011).
3. Warner, Judith, ‘Always in style: The Chanel suit’, Town and Country, New York, January 2002. Vol.156, Iss.5260; pp.92-100.
4. Feeney, Katherine, ‘Million-dollar wardrobe to stun Brisbane Fashionistas’, Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), 13 August 2011.
http://m.smh.com.au/entertainment/about-town/milliondollar-wardrobe-to-s... (accessed 25 September 2011).
5. Smith, Charlotte, Dreaming of Chanel, Collins, Harper, 2010, quoted in exhibition pamphlet, p.2.
6. Smith, Charlotte, ibid, p.1.
7. The Galleries, op. cit. (accessed 10 October 2011).
8. Smith, Charlotte, ibid, p.4.
9. Smith, Charlotte, ibid, p.4.
10. ‘The Galleries’, op. cit. (accessed 10 October 2011).
Images page 93. Installation view of ‘Dreaming of Chanel’, 2011. Photo © Richard Stringer. page 94 Chanel suit, circa 1960. Darnell Collection, Sydney.