Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Mechanical Ruse

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (French, 1883–1971). Ensemble, 1922. Brown silk georgette with red, green, and blue stylized floral silk thread chainstitch embroidery. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Gifts, 2005 (2005.114a, b).

When Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director of Chanel, first saw this ensemble, he immediately lifted its hem and examined the reverse of the lavish embroidery. “This is not handwork. It is machine,” he declared. The curators had dated the piece to the period of Gabrielle Chanel’s association with the Kitmir embroidery firm of Grand Duchess Marie of Russia, the sister of Grand Duke Dmitri, Chanel’s lover at the time. According to popular lore, the Kitmir firm was established so that the aristocratic women in the expatriate White Russian community might profit from their fine hand-sewing skills. Lagerfeld’s observation, then, created some confusion about the authenticity and dating of a piece that should have been the expression of the needleworking skills of the Kitmir ladies.

Eventually, however, research revealed that while Kitmir began with time- and labor-intensive hand stitching, Chanel had been immediately dismissive of the benefits of such efforts and had purchased three machines for her paramour’s sister so that the grand duchess might produce her embroideries more efficiently. This subordination of the value of handwork where it provided no additional aesthetic value may be seen as a manifestation of Chanel’s businesslike approach to fashion: decorative appeal had its own rationalization, whether in fake jewelry or folkloric embroideries. Artisanal effects for Chanel were not diminished by the fact that they were the product of industrial processes.

This is a rare model from Chanel’s Russian collection. The embroideries, inspired by folkloric Russia, were done by the Kitmir atelier, a workshop specializing in Russian embroideries, founded in Paris by Princess Maria Pavlovna, who was the sister of Grand Duke Dimitri. Almost nothing exists from this 1920s Chanel collection.

—Karl Lagerfeld

Comments (38)

  1. marina urbach Says:

    “Eventually…research revealed that while Kitmir began with time- and labor-intensive hand stitching… subordination of the value of handwork, where it provided no additional aesthetic value, may be seen as a manifestation of Chanel’s businesslike approach to fashion… decorative appeal … whether in fake jewelry or folkloric embroideries…artisanal effects for Chanel were not diminished by the fact that they were the product of industrial processes.” It is easy to imagine Karl Lagerfeld lifting the hem to examine the textile! The industrial revolution brought the possibility of mass production. The value of handwork and natural materials, silk, cotton, wool et cetera has been replaced. The dress of a peasant from India or Mexico becomes “couture” in the hands of the designer who chooses this model for inspiration. Chanel’s business sense was strong, no doubt, but she was also ahead of her time.

  2. c willow Says:

    way ugly pattern, even 4 vintage

  3. mtb Says:

    I thought this was way cool and very modern and not surprised that it was Coco Chanel. Her clothes are still timeless and way ahead of their time.

  4. Naeema Says:

    i am not too found of this dress.Even isf it is coco chanel

  5. Sean Palmer Says:

    Please don’t tell anyone I want to wear these dresses.

  6. Ana Fisyak Says:

    I think I love it.

  7. luigi Says:

    The captions and labelling of the costume institution brings to mind Thomas Hobbes’ celebrated comment in Book VIII of Leviathan:” When men write whole volumes of such stuff, are they not mad or intend to make others so?”

  8. Laurie Aron Says:

    How interesting. I would never have guessed Chanel would have been subject to “ethnic influence,” whether hand or machine-made. It must have been awfully well-made if Karl Lagerfeld had to look at the back of the fabric, or even to confuse curators. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine her reaching for a more efficient way to effect the look.

  9. Ann Blair Says:

    Chanel was not the only designer to be influenced by and to make use of ethnic embroidery designs. While she is not widely known today, Mariska Karaz(1898-1960), a Hungarian emigre, designed women’s and children’s clothing in the 1920s and 30s that synthesized folk style traditional embellishments with a modern American aesthetic.
    Also in the same period Callot Soeurs, Worth, Premet, Agnes Drecoll and numerous others produced garments that fed the 1920s taste for minimalist form and lustrous surface embellishments that borrowed extensively from both European and Eastern ethnic designs.
    The use of industrial methods proved to be both a blessing and a curse. While machine embroidery allowed greater volume of production at a reduced cost as well as freeing the embroiderers from exacting and often eye straining work it has also resulted in a near loss of the knowledge of many of these arts.

  10. Andra Says:

    Is it really horrible that this dress was embroidered by a machine? It’s an incredibly modern approach to design and fabrication. Chanel truly lived in the spirit of the Modern Age. Yet to reference ethnic style like that, and rto emake it using a machine, is also post-modern. I love Chanel for her contradictions. Would you call this dress modern? I can’t make up my mind.

  11. Laurie Aron Says:

    Thank you, Ann. It’s fascinating how ethnic looks have run the gamut from influencing couture to being acts of rebellion to influencing couture all over again. I’m thinking my mother’s I’ve always thought Mexican-influenced coral/rust ruffled skirt (not couture, certainly, but must have been knocked off something) that she wore to casual parties with a black sweater in the 1950s, and which I now wear, and all those embroidered “peasant blouses” my cousins brought back from Mexico in the 1960s, which were such an anti-authoritarian statement (and I wish I had kept!) but which have now lost all their political content.

    Ironically, I just started reading Rebecca West’s 1930s book on Yugoslavia, “Black Lamb, Grey Falcon,” and in one of the earliest scenes, she is weeping over a lapful of ruined complexly embroidered Macedonian dresses. She had bought them from peasants there, and on a stop to recover her health in an Austrian nursing home, the doctor insists the garments be disinfected, and instead they are washed. The strong color patterns run, Austrian efficiency and ignorance riding roughshod over the particularity of the design and workmanship. West feels she has been a poor steward. Embroidery as politics as well as in Chanel’s case, economics!

    Sorry to go on so. It’s just so interesting and it all connects.

  12. Josie Says:

    I very much like the pattern of this dress. However, I really don’t like the cut and shape of the dress.

  13. Lily Monir Matini, Esq. Says:

    agreed, the pattern is somewhat nice
    but it’s too dark, too geometric, too large, too stilted/starch
    prefer drop waist lighter fare from the 20’s
    and the introduction of bias cut in the 30’s

  14. wagoneer Says:

    I was surprised not to see any dresses by the french designers Heimstone. i sur ehope they will be here in the next show.

  15. Brittany Says:

    This dress is an wonderful example for my theroy on fashion i am 12 years old and intrested in fashion i hope to have my own line. Anyway i wrote a essay on fashion topics this was it a wonderful idea and designer but the dress sucks. I would wear it if i could change the color,hem,pattern and add accesories(DUH!). Now if it became lighter and then it had a more lively pattern one that expresses life instead of the 7 sins. I think this dress is an example of the 7 sins because i think it is it is my perspective. Anyway i think coco messed up but it still contains i think a good idea but i would NEVER wear this dress unless i could change it completly. But a dress that is good is a dream a dress that is bad but has a good designer and idea is still a nightmare that you can shut off and wake up.CIAO Bmorgan look for me when i am big!

  16. Ted Han Says:


  17. Ashley Tisdale Says:

    I love this dress its sooooo cute and i would totaly wear it

  18. Rebecca Says:

    The most fascinating thing about all of this is the reasons why the designers constructed their pieces and what inspired them to physically express their own creation. I really love that pink silk dress. It’s so elegant and looks like it moves so freely when one wears it. I find all of this really inspiring. I just love itl.

  19. Gracey Says:

    I can’t believet this is Chanel from 1920s! So unexpected…and colorful!

  20. Odile Says:

    Of course, there is a beautiful example for an “ethnic influrenced” dress. Coco Chanel did much more dresses with wonderful embroideries, such as the “Tricolor” Evening Dress in blue, white and red later in 1939.
    Karl Lagerfeld fullfilled the genre with “Coromandel” Evening-Ensemble (Haute Couture 1996/97) because there were much japanese reflections in Chanel`s apartment in the Rue Cambon.

  21. Rebecca Says:

    At first I was surprised to note that this was Chanel, but I now see it is a great example of the beautifully ornamented, practical sillouhette favored by Coco. It was even more exciting to read that the embroidery was machine. Economy and beauty - lovely!

  22. anna Says:

    soo cute

  23. gabrielle Says:

    I read about the exhibit & was very interested to see this vintage piece from the rare Russian collection. The cut is definitely spot on Chanel but it was a treat to see this “out of left field” Chanel statement made with the help of her Russian friends. The detail was incredible and even though it is not what you would expect from Chanel, the brilliant handwork and the unexpectedness adds to my already intense Chanel infatuation

  24. Laurie Aron Says:

    I don’t know. I just went back to the Costume Institute to have another look, and I never would have thought this dress was hand-embroidered. It totally looked machine-made. I didn’t read the words until I got to the web site, so I never gaped at it and wondered how anybody would mistake it.

    OH, this sounds so know-it-all. I don’t. It just looks machine-made to me, but I’m coming at it from the point of view of someone accustomed to machine-made embroidery, not from the point of view of someone expert in the type of handwork that was being done at the time by specific people for specific couturiers.

  25. Brandon Says:

    It was a great opportunity to see this dress in person. And its very interesting how the Chanel brand has evolved over time. You definitely do not see and Chanel garments that look like this anymore. Its not my favorite pattern or shape, but its great to see where all the great designs of today came from.

  26. Laurie Aron Says:

    Chanel was a genius, and freed women up from lots of discomfort, BUT, to put it in perspective, not necessarily with reference to this specific dress, I quote Rebecca West, the British writer, from her heavily autobiographical novel “Cousin Rosamund,” “But as we grew through the late twenties, there rose the star of Chanel, who imposed on women the most hideous uniform that they have ever worn. The gravest of us had to go about by day in straight skirts up to our knees, with wide belts around our hips, and our heads buried in flower-pot hats that covered our foreheads, and by night in dresses that were short and even more ridiculous in form. They were cut with square necks and plain shoulder straps, so that at a dinner-party the women might have been sitting round the table in bathing dresses…But there was an alternative for evening in the robes de style with Lanvin had just invented…”"

    “It’s p. 2 in the Viking 1985 edition.

  27. Madysin Ltn Says:

    Chanel’s vision and fashion as well as an icon in the representation of feminism at the turn of the century embodies her deals of simplicity in her dress showcase here at the Met. The red color, seem to be shocking, the the refined lines and simple tailoring and fit makes this piece identifiable a Chanel. She was most famous for liberating women from their corsets and the ability to have movement in fashion as well as progression towards women’s rights. All of Chanel’s designs are timeless and classic. It can be worn in the 20s, as well as today and represent the same ideal in which is sewn into every seam she put into it.

  28. Grandma Jean Says:

    Old as I am, I like fashion that smiles and makes the wearer enjoy it.
    and of course,Chanel is classic too.

  29. Jimmy Says:

    the dress is ugly

  30. Stella Lee Says:

    I love this dress. Texture dress.

  31. Karen Scott Says:

    Good design transcends time and this dress does. I would wear this dress. The simple cut plays to the artistic use of color; yet this dress remains a dress the owner would wear and not one that wears it’s owner.

  32. Ally Warkenthien Says:

    Despite the fact that this dress has an ethnic influence it is easy to recognize the simple elegance that is such a strong characteristic of Gabrielle Chanel. Even with the bold design of the fabric the classic ladylike design is still apparent.

  33. emilnator, vikkista, bethy Says:

    bloody lovely!! :) how do you think of these designs … they are simply amazing…breathtaking, devine…blown us away completely

  34. JOANNA Says:

    This was a very unique pice from Chanel’s collection. It was nice to see somthing different from her work.

  35. meimi1995529 Says:

    the print and scarf are nice but the style of the dress is just HIDEOUS!!! Xp

  36. Michael Says:

    The description of the manufacture of this dress leaves the question a bit short. Did the boyfriend hand stich the work or was Karl correct in his dismissive assumption of machine work? Thank you for including the piece. It does represent a time when textile work was EVOLVING from all hand to mostly machine. either way, a lovely, unique piece of art.

  37. Maria Ines Strasser Says:

    Es la primera vez que veo este modelo de Chanel y fuera de contexto….de lo más conocemos de la línea de Chanel…no está tan lejos de los vestidos presentados por ella en encaje negro en los años 20….quizás la impronta personal puesta en este vestido….lo hace diferente, único, no es parte de ninguna serie ni de otro estilo identificable como UN CHANEL pero no deja de provocar las ganas de investigar más sobre esa época y la influencia rusa en la moda de la época……me encantó la historia que rodea al modelo!!!!!!

  38. Susan Gordan Says:

    It was treat to see something that was different for Chanel. I loved the commentary about the embroidery and whether it was hand done or machine done. Thanks for sharing the full story. Of course, it would have been nice if the label had been higher. As I write people all over the gallery are bent over reading the labels–sort of bowing to the fashion. That is a nice sentiment for those of us that love fashion history, but not so pretty to watch from behind. Please, please raise these labels and keep the text size at least as large as it is now.

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