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Coco Chanel's new image of the 1920's woman, the successes and failures of feminism in 'Flapper' fashion
This essay will look to explore the successes and relative failures of Coco Chanel's role as such an influential figure, not only in the world of fashion with her radical new thinking on womenswear, incorporating and appropriating men's clothing for the first time, but also how she was one of the biggest driving forces behind the feminist movement of that time. It will discuss her desire to obtain greater equality between the sexes on a social and economic level, and how this was symbolised in her designs, and the extent to which she was successful in doing so. It will show the difficult personal journey she took to get to where she was and how this affected her personally but also how this came through in her work and ideals. This essay will also discuss the resistance her feminist ideals faced in the aftermath of the First World War, with the social and economical environment still in turmoil, men taking back jobs from their female counterparts, unemployment high and the changes in popular culture, including the growing appeal of Hollywood cinema. The shifting of women's social and cultural roles will be discussed and the gathering speed and influence of modernity in the form of make up and technological advancements and how these factors had both positive and negative effects on the progression of sexual equality. These factors will be taken in account and examined in relation to fluctuating levels and types of power between sexes with the changes in fashion and the social environment.
To explain Chanel's strong views and feminist drive, it is important to understand her childhood, growing up in an orphanage ran by nuns, having been abandoned there by her farther after her mother died when she was still young. Colin McDowell( 2009) in his Sunday Times article, Why there's no true story of Coco Chanel , suggests this to be the reason for her deep mistrust of men and the strong desire she had for independence from them. Further more Chanel's up bringing in an ultra disciplinarian environment could explain her own personal drive and courage to dispose of the past and focus on purely forward thinking and development of her own personal goals. Her childhood gave her the ambition to leave an impoverish start in life behind, and succeed in order to reach high social and economic standing in life, a life she viewed with resentment but also envy. This difficult passage in life did however give Chanel invaluable experience with, at one point or another, being on every rung of the social ladder, it also left her with an extreme resentment of authority, something that possibly drove her not only with her feminist ambitions but also in the brutal world of fashion and as Colin McDowell quotes Dianna Vreeland in his Times Article,
"She understood all women because she had been all women. She despised men, yet she loved men. She had bullied and shamed and she bullied and shamed in her own way. But, above all, she wanted women to have the freedom that men took as their own right." (Dianna Vreeland, c. 1974)
Chanel was the first person to use and incorporate male clothing into women's fashion. This was a deliberate decision and a strong statement of her beliefs in equality between the sexes. She put great importance on women's liberation from the restrictions her male counterparts had imposed for centuries before. This was symbolised in her designs by the straight silhouettes and lines, traditionally seen in menswear in the form of suits. Chanel's removal of the waist, complete disposal of the corset and longer garments which hung from the shoulders with limited or no darts defeminised the body image, as with no obvious waist, the feminine curves of the breasts and hips, both areas of the body associated with sex and reproduction, were cancelled out. This produced the effect of creating a more boy like body image (Macdonald, M 1995: p197). Creating a greater visual equality with men, it was a dramatic change from the decades and centuries before, yet the boy like image was perhaps not far enough, as it retained some of the effeminate qualities often synonymous with teenage boys. Not until the 1980's would feminist fashion make such an obvious attempt at visual equality again, this time utilising ultra masculine shoulder pads (Bernard 1996: p116).
This new style of clothing which allowed more physical freedom and designed by Chanel for such a purpose was paralleled with the changing social and cultural expectations of women (Stewart and Janovicek 2001, p173). To this point, women were seen in a domesticated role, with duties as wives and mothers, but after the war the women became far more socially active, independent of men, as Buckley and Fawcett say, women, to an extent became sexually and social emancipated (Buckley and Fawcett 2002, p83). The appearance of Fashion as a means of individual expression, provided a chance to obtain and portray new identities for women, spurned on consumerism, in line with modernism and increased female employment, albeit for a lower wage than men. This awareness of independence and self expression was stimulated by new media, advertising, illustrations and photography in women's magazines (Buckley and Fawcett 2002, p83).
During this time the designs by Chanel and similar designs by such people as Elsa Schiaparelli were very popular for many reasons. Firstly, what the designs represented was important to the women who wore them, the physical and social freedom. Secondly the nature of the designs in terms of their construction and style meant that lower and middle social classes were able to reproduce the look, either by making their own or by altering existing garments ( Buckley and Fawcett 2002, p88). McDowell suggests this was important to Chanel and she had deliberately made designs that resembled aspects of the clothes worn by servants of the upper classes who would buy them, thus reducing the extreme visual class separation between them, a division Chanel resented as a result of her childhood (McDowell, 2009).
A factor Buckley and Fawcett point to as another contributing factor to the changing social and cultural image of women, especially the predetermined role of them as mother and wife, is at that time, it was no longer a fore-gone conclusion as they quote;
"After the war many women could not hope for marriage and many men could not afford it. This conjunction of circumstances affected manners - and women's fashion - so that femininity and the maternal instincts were kept firmly under disguise" (Charles Loch Mowat 1973, p125)
This combined with the introduction of the first birth control measures meant women had increased control over their lives, and possibly saw it as a chance to pursue interests outside of the home. Such developments contributed drastically to women becoming, and experiencing life as individuals in their own right. And as Mowat alludes to, the styles Chanel produced were in harmony with this idea, the straightening of the waist and flattening of the bust and hips removed attention away from these feminine areas, not only portraying to men that, as women, they represented something more, but also to other women as a sign of independence and solidarity. Something it could be said that gave stimulus to many of these changes and aided Chanel's ambitions to portray sexual equality through fashion, was women's suffrage, albeit France did not grant women's suffrage until 1944 but by the mid 1920's nations such as Britain and America had, nations that Chanel became popular and influential in (Buckley and Fawcett 2002, p85).
Chanel's ultimate success throughout the 1920's didn't however come without its problems and self created paradoxes of the feminist ethos it supported, the upset of balance of power between the sexes was obviously unwanted by the vast majority of men. The timing of the feminist developments, post war, had its benefits with it being an opportune moment to instil change but on the other side of the coin it was possibly one of the worst, men returning from war, a country in mourning trying to rebuild itself still dealing with the turmoil, one of the last things wanted was another war (Buckley and Fawcett 2002, p91). The fact that it was at this moment, with over a million Frenchmen having been sent to their deaths for their country, that Chanel, amongst others chose to denounce aspects of the patriarchal system and traditions, could be seen as a little cold. This said, the other view, as Buckley and Fawcett point out is that there was an eagerness to see women gain more power would be to see similar situations averted in the future, a prevention of the male instinct to fight (Buckley and Fawcett 2002, p84).
Chanel's success occasionally seemed to come into conflict with her own feminist morals, for example, due to her impoverish upbringing, she relied on her position as an attractive female and her feminine charms to make progress financially and socially through connections of her various wealth and connected lovers, the very men she held such contempt for (McDowell, C 2009). This said, at the time very few other options would have been available to her. Another irony that seems apparent with Chanel's success is to do with the empowerment of women to become more socially active. This came in the form of shopping, socialising and the growing popularity of mainstream Hollywood Cinema. Cinema which portrayed movie stars as icons, icons that Chanel would dress with her creations (Buckley and Fawcett 2002, p86). The problem with this is that as much as women, including these film icons to an extent, had become liberated through Chanel's new style of fashion, cinema was, as Mulvey (1989) points out, still portraying women as sexual objects, playing to their femininity (Mulvey, L 1989 p19)
"In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle: from pin ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, and plays to and signifies male desire." (Mulvey, L 1989 p 19)
Rudd, N.A Lennon, S.J (1999) and Freedman (1986) describe this as women holding 'hedonic' power over men, 'indirect influence over others', ' acquired by virtue of one's appearance, charm, exhibition, or political savvy' rather than possessing any 'agonic' power, 'direct influence over others' and the general possession of direct power either physical or political. It could be said that the devaluing of hedonic power and a balance of agonic power was, and still is, the main goal of feminism.
This subject of hedonic and agonic power is a good way to view some of the less feminist 'by-products' of Chanel's fashion liberalisation during the 1920's. Many women saw the 'Flapper' image as a chance for freedom and independence in order to make their own progressions independent of men, but it could be said that some also saw the freedom and break in tradition, combined with the recent developments of personal style and make up as well as 'Fashion' becoming an entity to aspire to in its own right, as a chance to exploit their hedonic power. The effect of this was amplified by the way women were portrayed in Cinema and the Americanised idolism it brought with it. It may have also been fuelled by the introduction of birth control and a more liberal approach to sex, healthy relationships were no longer viewed in terms of marriage, articles even featured in women's magazines.
"â€¦sex desires and that these desires are not wicked; that to repress them was as difficult and dangerous to women as to men, and that they need no longer pretend that all they wanted was at most motherhood, when it was quite as natural for them to want loverhood" (Haste. C 1992, p61)
At the time this was only a small discrepancy in an otherwise successful change in attitude by and towards women. Chanel through her fashion and social influence created a new look and a new image of women. Her difficult start in life had given her strength and desire to make changes at a very difficult time. She herself became a role model for women, but she also created a legacy that lives on today. The reason feminism did not continue to gather pace from the 1920's could be explained by the Second World War, which had the effect of resetting social agendas and re-empowering the patriarchal order that Chanel had looked to question. It must be said, it is a tribute to the strength of legacy Chanel produced and her shrewd business instinct that saw her re-establish her self after the second world war and that her name remains one of the biggest in fashion to this day. Chanel's empowerment of women through creation of independent personal identities could be considered as the reason we have 'Fashion' today. Not only did she break down barriers between men and women but she also made big steps into breaking down class barriers, longer was Fashion exclusive to the elite and upper classes. Any resistance the feminist ethos faced at this time was relatively insignificant. Those women who chose to pursue hedonic instead of agonic power only felt the freedom to do so due to the liberation the feminist movement had bought about. It could also be said that many of the non-feminist values adopted by women at this time were down to the growing popularity of film and cinema, a media that was and is to this day a more male dominated industry than fashion itself (Mulvey 1989, p19). It would be interesting to know if the Second World War had not happened, would Chanel's continued influence resulted in greater sexual equality today?