Classicism and Couture: Greek Art and Design Meets Chanel

‘I’m suggesting going back to move forward. To create the future, you have to pay attention to the past.’ – Karl Lagerfeld

‘There is some irony in a designer who famously dislikes nostalgia creating a collection inspired by an era from about 2,500 years ago.’[1]

We start this blog post with two opposing perspectives of Karl Lagerfeld’s Cruise ‘Modernity of Antiquity’ (a juxtaposing title in itself) 2017 show for Chanel, held at the Grand Palais.

Lagerfeld’s theme for the show was everything and anything Ancient Greek – using architecture, pottery, Greek dress and decorative arts, as predominant influences throughout this collection.

chanel 2018

Image Source: Photograph of a model wearing draped silk Chanel gown for Karl Lagerfeld’s ‘Modernity of Antiquity’ Cruise 2018 collection. Yannis Vlamos. Vogue. JPEG.

Lagerfeld’s garments echoed historical Greek dress – including an assortment of garments resembling the the chiton, peplos, and himitation styles. Gold coins which looked freshly excavated from an archaeological dig, were used as buttons, embossed with the Chanel ‘CC’ logo. Lagerfeld’s preference for the Midas touch was also inferred through his use of laurel-leaf crowns, which were worn by gladiator-sandal-clad models.

chanel 2018 2

Image Source: Photograph of a model wearing white pleated Chanel gown with scroll pattern for Karl Lagerfeld’s ‘Modernity of Antiquity’ Cruise 2018 collection. Yannis Vlamos. Vogue. JPEG.

The use of the colour white in Lagerfeld’s pleated and draped fabrics instantly reminded audiences of the Greek columns found in temples such as the Parthenon. Frieze patterns depicting Athenian figures on Lagerfeld’s garments looked like artefacts now displayed within institutions such as the British and Victoria and Albert museum.

terracotta statue

Image Source: 12.229.19. Terracotta statuette of a woman looking into a box mirror. 3rd–2nd century B.C. Terracotta. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. JPEG.

chanel 2018 3

Image Source: Photograph of a model wearing a tweed and patterned Chanel ensemble for Karl Lagerfeld’s ‘Modernity of Antiquity’ Cruise 2018 collection. Yannis Vlamos. Vogue JPEG.

(If you look closely at this bell-krater, you may observe the laurel-leaf crowns worn by Dionysos and his followers, a clear influence for Lagerfeld).

terracotta jar

Image Source: 07.286.85. Terracotta bell-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water). c450 BC. Terracotta. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. JPEG.

But if fashion is all about the new – why do designers keep looking backwards – in order to look forward? 

We’ve seen the revival of Greek dress before – notably during and after the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. Ostentatious dress representing the Ancien Régime and aristocracy in the form of the Robe à la Française and the mantua worn commonly at court, were shunned in favour of a new, simplified, “natural” silhouette emerging from the political upheaval of the French Revolution.

According to fashion historian Lydia Edwards in the text How to Read a Dress: A Guide to Changing Fashion From the 16th to the 20th Century, “naturalness” in this context meant the use of lightweight, easy-to-launder (and therefore hygienic) materials such as muslin, cotton, poplin, batiste, and linen. Meanwhile the drape and columnar structure of dresses took its inspiration from classical Greece and Rome and the pure white statues of antiquity.[2]

lacma fashion plate

Image Source: M.83.161.170. Fashion Plate. c19th century (early). Hand-coloured engraving. LACMA Museum. JPEG.

1800 lacma dress

M.2007.211.867. Dress. Cotton plain weave (muslin) with silk embroidery. c1800. LACMA Museum. JPEG.

Fast forward a century later – fashion designers such as Mariano Fortuny and Madame Grès revived classicism during the early twentieth century. Trained in architecture, Grès for example, began working from the early 1920’s right up until the end of the 1950’s. Already appreciative of Ancient Greek design, Grès became synonymous with monochromatic, draped and pleated gowns all pinned by hand. (We wrote an article about Grès which you can read here).

madame gres 1958

Image Source: 1973.104.2a, b. Madame Grès gown. c1958. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Academics, such as postmodernist Frederic Jameson, can be critical of designers who have a penchant to revive past styles whilst simultaneously injecting their own elements of the new into their fashion collections. As he states, ‘in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.’[3]

However, these designers have not claimed historical accuracy, and nor does this seem to be of importance to them. Rather, designers such as Lagerfeld, Grès or Fortuny, have attempted to revive or create an aura/mood of authenticity, or of the ancient and antique, a strategy practised by architects, painters and dressmakers since the nineteenth-century.

In practical terms, the revival of past archival styles, such as Christian Dior’s original 1947 ‘Bar’ suit by Maria Grazia Chiuri, can demonstrate the knowledge of newly appointed creative and artistic fashion directors, authenticating their position as head designer whilst paying homage to the heritage and history of the brand.

Lagerfeld himself often does this by using the ‘CC’ logo created by Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, with tweed fabric, pearls and quilted leather which has become synonymous with the Chanel house, incorporated into most of his collections.[4]

maria grazia churi dior

Image Source: Photograph of a model wearing an reinterpretation of Christian Dior’s 1947 ‘Bar’ suit design for Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Dior Spring 2017 couture collection. Yannis Vlamos. Vogue JPEG.

chanel 2018 4

Image Source: Photograph of a model wearing a tweed Chanel ensemble for Karl Lagerfeld’s ‘Modernity of Antiquity’ Cruise 2018 collection. Yannis Vlamos. Vogue. JPEG.

As the former curator-in-chief of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Harold Koda explains, ‘contemporary designers have introduced to fashion the narratives of ancient myth. In a field characterised by constant change, they have clung to the illusion of an enduring and persistent ideal of beauty through the resonant imagery of classical decorative motifs.’[5]

Perhaps Koda’s words can help decipher what Lagerfeld meant when he expressed his loss whilst discussing contemporary design in comparison to Ancient Greek culture. As he stated, ‘the criteria of beauty in ancient, then classical, Greece still holds true. There have never been more beautiful representations of women.'[6] As the speed of fashion design, production, and consumption has accelerated, it appears that Ancient Greek design has remained as an ideal source of celebrated and appreciated design.

chanel 2018 5

Image Source: Photograph of a model wearing a boucle Chanel jacket and silk skirt for Karl Lagerfeld’s ‘Modernity of Antiquity’ Cruise 2018 collection. Yannis Vlamos. Vogue. JPEG.

In the case of Lagerfeld, his revival is not represented by literal copies of Greek dress (which may resemble fancy dress rather than high designer), but instead interpretations of chitons or togas, and other formative ideals of Ancient Greek society.

chanel 2018 7

Image Source: Photograph of a model wearing draped silk Chanel gown for Karl Lagerfeld’s ‘Modernity of Antiquity’ Cruise 2018 collection. Yannis Vlamos. Vogue. JPEG.

gold slater

Image Source: 05.44.384. Gold Stater. ca. 323/2–315 B.C. Gold. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. JPEG.

As creative directors and designers continue to leave fashion houses as fast as they are appointed to them, we witness a profound increase in the revival of historical styles. This phenomenon has resulted in a contradictory paradox and reversal between contemporary fashion revolving around the concepts of newness and modernity, whilst simultaneously structuring designs based on historical references.

It could be possible, that within the chaos of the fashion cycle, one such as Lagerfeld seeks calm by revisiting a past fashion that remains historical, but ceases to die.


[1] Joelle Diderich, “Chanel Cruise 2018: Greece Is the Word.” WWD. 3 May. 2017.

[2] Lydia Edwards, How to Read a Dress: A Guide to Changing Fashion From the 16th to the 20th Century, 2017, 64.

[3] Frederick Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. 7.

[4] Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas, “Walter Benjamin: Fashion, Modernity and the City Street,” Thinking Through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists, ed. Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik (London: I.B.Tauris, 2015) 87.

[5] Harold Koda, “The Chiton, Peplos, and Himitation in Modern Dress.” The Heilbrunn Timeline of History: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Oct 2003. Web. 5 May. 2017.

[6] Diderich, Chanel Cruise 2018: Greece is the Word.

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