Then: Yes, Coco Chanel is famous for fostering the little black dress. But an even more revolutionary concept sprang from the French designer: that women’s clothing should be as easy to wear as men’s. “Chanel felt a woman needed to look like a woman but live like a man,” says Eddie Bledsoe, an associate professor at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles. Rebelling against corset-bound fashions, she devised simple tailored garments, adapting menswear to the female body and introducing pants to the fairer sex. Balancing the masculine feel with something soft, like a silk blouse, she would layer on jewelry of delicate opulence. The result: a pared-down elegance that offered women a new way of dressing―and freedom.
Now: Menswear-influenced pieces, like wide-leg trousers, gain a distinctly feminine aspect when teamed with a frilly blouse. And don’t hesitate to pile on the pearls―quintessential Chanel.
2 of 4Brian Doben
The Principle: Define an Hourglass Silhouette
Christian Dior (1905 to 1957)
Then: After the severe restrictions of World War II, Christian Dior single-handedly brought sexy back with extravagant, ultrafeminine designs. Using yards of silk and taffeta in boned and corseted bodices and voluminous skirts, the Frenchman maximized the curves of women, hidden for so long under somber, conservative dresses. Christened “the New Look” by Harper’s Bazaar in 1947, the silhouette was controversial for confining women to corsets again. Yet women were captivated by the voluptuous fashion. “His style was very ladylike,” says George Simonton, a professor of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York City. “He put women on pedestals.”
Now: Anything belted, cinched, or nipped at the waist over a dramatically full skirt will echo the Dior look, a style that is surprisingly slimming. “The silhouette fools the eye with its shaping and construction,” notes Simonton. Try a fitted jacket paired with a flouncy skirt or even a 50s-style dress.
3 of 4Brian Doben
The Principle: Make a Statement
Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 to 1973)
Then: Elsa Schiaparelli worked mere blocks from Coco Chanel in Paris, but their fashion approaches were miles apart. Where Chanel believed in the soft and the real, the Italian-born Schiaparelli promoted fantasy. Elaborately beaded, appliquéd, and embroidered, her work was often created in collaboration with surrealists, like Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau. She felt it “was comparable to the things her friends were producing on canvas,” says Emma Baxter Wright, author of Vintage Fashion: Collecting and Wearing Designer Classics ($40, amazon.com). Schiaparelli’s legacy: exaggerated style (she popularized shoulder pads), exuberant color (including what she dubbed “shocking pink”), and the sense that fashion could be an adventure.
Now: Stand out in a vividly colored piece that dazzles with ornate details. While this lavish cardigan is a natural for evening, it works in the daytime, too. Just tone it down with a pair of jeans.
4 of 4Brian Doben
The Principle: Simplify Shapes for Easy Sophistication
Oleg Cassini (1913 to 2006)
Then: Debonair Oleg Cassini had a thriving career in film costumes, but his creations reached their widest audience when Jacqueline Kennedy chose him to mastermind her White House wardrobe. The French-born émigré shunned elaborate designs for sleek, tailored shapes―A-line sheaths, boxy jackets―that didn’t distract from the woman who wore them. “Cassini’s style was structured and tasteful,” says Pamella Roland, a designer based in New York City. This classic simplicity made Cassini a star―and Jackie Kennedy a paradigm of chic.
Now: A sleeveless sheath dress epitomizes Cassini at his minimalist best. Belted or skimming the waist, the straightforward shape works on all body types. Top it with a boxy jacket with lady-like three-quarter-length sleeves when you want a more pulled-together look.