(Flanner’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 3/1931.)
Gabrielle Chanel is a dressmaker who grew rich launching the genre pauvre. When she appeared on the Paris horizon before the war, the Gould girls, then all the rage, were brushing the pelouse at Longchamp with the trailing flounces of their silken skirts; the tiresome tiered train of the Duchesse d’Albe swept clean the steps of the Opéra when she descended on gala nights; and, deeper but brighter in the social scale, the complicated blue froufrou petticoats and stiff blue-satin stays of the lovely Liane de Pougy were, if uncomfortable for her, matters of ecstasy to everyone else. Women were full of gussets, garters, corsets, whalebones, plackets, false hair, and brassières. In short, as the men passionately muttered, women were full of mystery. The first iconoclastic simplification that Chanel made in the mode was a cobalt tricot sailor frock that might have been worn, at least in masquerade, by the French navy, and, in her twenty remarkable years since, she has brought the essential items of most of the other humbler trade costumes into fashionable circles. She has put the apache’s sweater into the Ritz, utilized the ditch-digger’s scarf, made chic the white collars and cuffs of the waitress, and put queens into mechanics’ tunics. Above all, for more than ten years and in defiance of everyone except, it would seem, women themselves, she kept ladies of all classes in skirts as pleasantly short as those of peasant girls about to go gleaning in the fields.