Iconic garment on a par with Dior

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by Jeannie Swales

Our object from the Scarborough Collections is a special one this week as it’s the favourite piece of our Head of Collections, Karen Snowden, who takes (early) retirement tomorrow, and will be much missed.

Karen’s early training was in costume, and she says: “This is my favourite because it’s an iconic garment on a par with Dior’s ‘new look’ dress of 1947 and Twiggy’s black-and-white shift dress of the 1960s.

“Made of mercerized cotton to give the appearance of knitted silk, it’s a one-piece garment designed to look like a three-piece suit. It has no maker’s label and was not made by Chanel, but bears many of the hallmarks of her work at this time.

“Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was born in Saumur, France in 1883 and was taught to sew in the orphanage where she grew up. During World War I she made a name for herself designing and producing sportswear for women. She made great use of jersey, a knitted fabric generally used for men’s underwear.

“Chanel took this slightly scandalous fabric and created a fashion icon. Using geometric designs and a muted colour palette, she combined form and function to create fashionable but comfortable garments that flattered the body and didn’t require heavy foundation garments to achieve the desired outline.

“This dress dates to the late 1920s and its small size suggests it was worn by a young woman.

“Mass production of fabrics and garments was still in its infancy but by the 1920s an ‘off-the-peg’ dress or hat was within reach of the young factory, shop or office worker. In the post-war world young women of every class were earning their own living. Light industry preferred women workers as they were nimbler and cheaper to employ than men.

“The number of large department stores expanded and even a small town would have at least one. Scarborough had Boyes for working and lower middle class women, while the better-off bought their clothes from Marshall & Snelgrove which employed seamstresses to alter off-the-peg clothes.

“Shopping was becoming an everyday activity for those who could afford it so an army of women was recruited to department stores, pharmacies, flower shops and discreet cafés where ladies could lunch in comfort and privacy without a male escort.

“Women were also employed as telegraphists, telephonists, secretaries and stenographers in offices and government agencies. The female equivalent of the two-piece suit had been introduced in the late 19th century using heavy fabrics like tweed and serge worn over a corset and a high-necked blouse, often with small ‘bones’ to support the high collar.

“Chanel, using her experience of designing sports clothes, took the woman’s suit and remade it in comfortable fabrics that allowed free movement and was much easier to keep clean. The dress would have been worn over rayon or polished cotton stockings with French knickers and a camisole, then topped off with a cloche hat, gloves and a small handbag for the girl-about-town’s lipstick, cigarettes, purse and front door key. The girls had finally arrived and the world was their oyster.”