The encounter between Coco Chanel and the world’s first socialist country – Bolshevik Russia – did not happen in the early 1920s when both Chanel and socialism were still modernist projects. The 1924 drawings of dresses by the Constructivist Varvara Stepanova and Coco Chanel’s drawing of a little black dress published in American Vogue in the same year, share the same modernist aesthetics, characterized by flatness and overall economy of style. While both Stepanova and Chanel proposed functionality and simplicity in dress, their similarities were only aesthetic.[i] The Bolsheviks completely rejected fashion, and, consequently, Coco Chanel could not have been accepted as a sartorial comrade. She would only become one in the late 1950s when both the socialist regimes and Coco Chanel herself were no longer revolutionaries, and, consequently, embraced sartorial convention. The new socialist predilection towards stability implied the design and production of conventional, repetitive clothes. The Chanel suit – classical, elegant and timeless – corresponded to this slow flow of time. [ii]
It could be said that a fear of change brought Chanel and socialist fashion together. Socialist magazines emphasized that Coco herself did not want, or indeed need any changes in her already perfect suit. Striving themselves towards an eternal chic, socialist fashion designers matched Coco Chanel’s ‘classicist’ aesthetics.
Fashion magazines, such as the East German Sibylle, Czechoslovak Woman and Fashion (Žena a móda) and Hungarian This Is Fashion (Ez a divat) published many versions of a Chanel classic suit from the late 1950s throughout the 1970s, which were created either by the designers within the central fashion institutions or produced by the magazines themselves as unique, one-off outfits for their fashion editorials. In 1964, Sibylle dedicated nineteen pages to Chanel suits, many of which were designed and executed only for that specific fashion story called ‘One Beautiful Day Just for You’.
Just as a Chanel suit itself, the newly ideologically approved socialist good taste allowed for changes in detail while avoiding any radical changes in cut or silhouette. Similar to socialist magazines, the references to Chanel in the French fashion media were strictly a-temporal. French Vogue declared Chanel’s Fall 1958 collection a ‘manifesto of elegance in simplicity’, and claimed that ‘five outfits on these pages show that a formula can evolve, renew and strengthen itself, while staying strictly faithful to its unchangeable style’.
Apart from offering an escape from fashionability and the dangers of temporality, the fashion media’s attention to detail also had economic reasons. As observed by Roland Barthes: “One detail is enough to transform what is outside meaning into meaning, what is unfashionable into Fashion, and, yet, “…the detail consecrates a democracy of budgets while respecting an aristocracy of tastes”.[iii] While Barthes in his Fashion System interrogates the 1950s French fashion media, the semantic value of the so-called ‘little nothing that changes everything’ was much stronger in the socialist fashion magazines’ efforts to fulfil the dreams of their female readership, while being limited by the repressed socialist market which was unable to deal with changing and desirable images of femininity.
However, the Chanel suit did not fit into socialist sartorial narrative only because of its timelessness. By the late 1950s, it happened to be an updated version of the early socialist dream that envisioned women wearing clothes that would be as uncomplicated, practical and sexually neutral as those worn by men. Speaking of herself in the third person, Chanel apparently told Salvador Dali: “Chanel always dressed like the strong independent male she had dreamed of being”. Socialism started with a utopian desire to abolish gender difference, but, after initial post-revolutionary experiments with a unisex vision of gender, it returned to the most traditional patterns of womanhood, leaving behind the image of a masculinized woman on a tractor. Yet, the fact that Coco Chanel was inspired by male dress codes, especially those concerning workers’ and soldiers’ clothes, contributed to her appeal within the field of socialist fashion.[iv] In this dress code, proletarian austerity was not abandoned. It was just embellished with the categories of prettiness and elegance.
The eternal allure of the Chanel suit was supported with romanticized stories about Coco Chanel and her life published in the socialist fashion media. Her social background of an illegitimate child brought up in an orphanage, and her determination to succeed against all the odds, was much emphasized. Her appreciation of fake jewellery was also praised. In those stories Coco Chanel was presented as a role model, almost a friend who could give you a few tips on how to achieve the perfect style.
In fact, the Chanel suit was not only an ideologically imposed style. Whether a woman internalized the official concepts of gender and taste, or simply could not afford a new suit each season, a Chanel-style suit seemed to be an ideal option. However, living in a system burdened by permanent shortages and poor quality clothes, socialist women could buy in the shops neither the original Chanel suits nor their copies. Helped by regular Do-It-Yourself columns in socialist fashion magazines, they had to crochet or sew those suits themselves.
[i] For an overview on the relationship between Soviet and western fashions in the 1920s, see: Bartlett, Djurdja (2010) FashionEast: the Spectre That Haunted Socialism, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, pp. 13-62
[ii] For a longer version of this essay, see: Bartlett, Djurdja “Coco Chanel and Socialist Fashion”, in: Bartlett, D., S. Cole and A. Rocamora (eds.) Fashion Media: Past and Present, London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, November 2013
[iii] Barthes, Roland (1990) Fashion System, Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 243
[iv] For an overview of the mixture of various social class elements in Chanel’s suits, see: Garelick, Rhonda K. (2001) “The Layered Look: Coco Chanel and Contagious Celebrity”, in: Fillin-Yeh, Susan (ed.) Dandies: Fashion and Finesse in Art and Culture, New York: New York University Press; Rose, Francis “Chanel Always Now”, Vogue, New York, December 1969, pp. 116-122.