Jersey Girl: History of Coco Chanel in Fabric


Benjamin Fitzgerald


Living through two World Wars, Coco Chanel let her materials and fits fight the societal influences placed on women at the time. Using jersey, tweed and varying forms of silk, Chanel's creations humanized women's wear and set in stone true, feminine style - from the little black dress to the tweed suit.

When Coco Chanel opened her first shop in Paris many of her sportswear-inspired pieces were made of jersey. As the flapper Twenties picked up, Chanel's little black dress showed a woman no longer had to create the impression of great wealth. Into the thirties, Chanel silks, chiffon and sequin embellishment flamed-up the decade that preceded WWII before the war took her out. With her return to design in postwar Paris, a more mature, refined and tailored Chanel launched something new; an icon that would set her name in fabric for all time - the Chanel suit, in tweed. 


1. Jersey

With the WWI fabric rations in full swing, jersey was the most viable option for Chanel to use in her women’s wear collections early on in her career. Chanel pioneered the undesirable jersey - an industrial fabric typically used for men’s underwear. 


Unelaborate, functional and comfortable, jersey dresses weren’t the en vogue look for women; preferring decorative, glitzy and luxurious gowns, which usually involved a corset (think Downton Abbey). As a new designer, Chanel purchased jersey for its low cost, too. The qualities of the fabric, however, saw Chanel continue to use it long after her business became profitable. Jersey dresses required little seaming for a comfortable fit, it draped well and suited Chanel's designs, which were simple, practical, and made women feel themselves.

"I make fashion women can live in, breath in, feel comfortable in and look younger in," said Chanel, famously.

2. Silk

Silk velvet was one of Chanel's choice fabric for her first dress suits, which came inspired by a costume worn by Chanel to a masquerade party in 1938. This suit, named the Watteau, was made of ruby red silk velvet, and was modeled after the attire worn by a male in a painting by the artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau. The velvet in tailoring shows Chanel's adoration for mixing the modern with historical in fashion. As the times changed, the dress suit was cropped to knee-length.

Silk chiffon featured in Chanel’s coat-and-dress ensembles, which blended dressmaker techniques with tailored cuts. The dress hem and appliqués of chiffon on the jacket were cut to follow the floral patterns on the fabric. Ornamental overstitching posed as decoration as well as structural reinforcement, and the soft tailoring became the foundation of the infamous Chanel suit, which was to come.


Chanel introduced the "little black dress" in 1926. Her first black number was a slash-necked, short silk dress with only diagonal pin-tucks as decoration. American Vogue called it the "Ford" and it became a huge hit.

Silk sequin evening dresses were Chanel’s final hurrah before WWII broke out in 1939. The glitz and glamor was a significant climax to le beau monde of the 1930s. One such gown was made with black silk net with polychrome sequins. Exploding with fireworks motif executed in brilliantly colored sequins, its celebratory image challenged the fear of war through fabric.



3. Tweed

At the close of WWII in line with the rise of Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’, Chanel felt compeled to return to design – creating clothes for women; those who'd survived another war and were much stronger and independent than the elaborate creations from Dior suggested. Aged seventy, Chanel was seeking out new fabrics and updating her classic soft tailored looks. 


Then, the Chanel suit was born and became a status symbol for a new generation. Made of solid or tweed fabric, it was comprised of a slim skirt and collarless jacket trimmed in braid, gold buttons, patch pockets, and a gold-colored chain sewn into the hem, ensuring it hung properly from the shoulders. Chanel also reintroduced her handbags, jewelry, and shoes in the following seasons, which cemented her success.