Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (French, 18831971)
Ivory silk lace with ivory silk tulle
Gift of Mrs. Stephen M. Kellen, 1978 (1978.165.16a,b)
Off-white had been in fashion since the late 1920s, popularized by an adverse reaction to the use of black for daytime, afternoon, and evening wear, and petitioned for early evening by members of the international elite, most prominently Daisy Fellowes. Mrs. Fellowes claimed that her adoration for the pale hue resonated in the elegance and modernism of muslin Directoire-era empire gowns. In the French department store, off-white was considered a perfect compromise between the stark, formal white of evening wear and the muted hues of 1930s daytime garb.
Though Coco Chanel's most famous incarnation of the early twentieth century was her celebrated wool jersey recreational separates costume, the couturière certainly appreciated the value of elegant couture stitching and refined design for evening wear. While other Parisian houses and American department stores were creating ankle-length 1930s sheaths for the early evening, Chanel seemed disinterested in the more formalistic etiquette of dress; her designs were limited to daytime or sportswear dresses and suits, which inevitably reached mid-calf length, or long, streamlined evening gowns that draped over a slim silhouette and sometimes included a brief train at back.
This evening ensemble is an exception to Chanel's unspoken rule. While the two-piece garment dates too early in Chanel's oeuvre to be designated a cocktail ensemble, it falls appropriately to above floor-length and includes a removable matching evening jacket with a modest neckline and sleeves. The transformative qualities of this ensemble were characteristic for cocktail suits of the 1930s; even at the couture level, the removable jacket allowed a smooth, easy transition between early evening clothing and garments intended for late-night soirées. The ensemble is composed of silk net that has been treated in a labor-intensive manner with ruffles shirred in, set by heat, and the shirring thread removed; the delicate construction and obsessive attention to detail intimates the refined tailoring technique and immaculate eye of Chanel couture.