Let’s Hear It For La Garçonne

Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. 

~ Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel, Vera Bates in outfits inspired by menswear and author interpreting these looks for a modern style.
On the left, Coco Chanel with Vera Bates hanging out with the dogs and dressed in menswear from head to toe. On the right, my version hanging out with my dog.

It’s hard to imagine a time when women’s apparel wasn’t inspired in some way by menswear. Trousers, blazers, the button-down collared shirt, oxford shoes, and even jeans are all elements that were once the domain of men only.

I’ve been drawn to these styles since I can remember. Even as a girl growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, I balked against what I perceived was itchy lace and girlie frills in favor of more masculine bowties and vests. (More about my lace phobia in a future post.)

The photo below is a contrast between what I chose to wear and what my younger sister wore. Of the two of us, she was girlier, choosing to wear her hair in a bun as often as she could and opting for soft, feminine looks. Whereas I am on the left with my hair down and the more masculine bowtie and vest on top of a blue plaid skirt.

Two girls dressed in fashions from the early 80s - one more feminine, the other more masculine, both dressed in skirts.
My sister on the right, about 8 years old, always looked like a tiny ballerina. In contrast, I’m on the left, about 11 years old, with my hair loose and wearing masculine styles.

By the time my sister and I came along, the gender lines in women’s fashion were thoroughly blurred. No one blinked an eye at my penchant for choosing more masculine styles. I was not scandalized for wanting to wear what I did. In fact, the Eighties were a great time to be alive and aware enough to explore these notions. Not only were women wearing what was once deemed “men only,” men were trying on more feminine looks.

 Boy George is just one example of how men were openly exploring women's fashion.  Nick Rhodes in the 80s.
Both Boy George and Nick Rhodes explored feminine styles during the 1980s.

La Garçonne broke gender barriers in the 1920s

None of us would have had such freedom were it not for Coco Chanel and other designers in the 1920s tapping into the psyche of the post-World War I era. It was a time when women were just beginning the process of owning their independence and power. (Not coincidentally, this also opened the door for men to explore their own femininity, which led to longer hair and softer colors and details for men’s fashions later in the century.) This time period in the Twenties was an awakening of sorts and Chanel was right there to capture that moment in fashion–even if it was considered scandalous at the time.

La Garçonne (tomboy or Bachelor Girl) was a trend that paved the way for men’s styles to be incorporated into women’s fashion. The trend grew out of the popularity of a novel entitled La Garçonne written by Victor Margueritte. In it, the heroine decides to live life on her own terms after her fiancé cheats on her. It was quite the scandalous read, even causing the author to lose his high-ranking status within the French government. Today, it’s nothing when compared to the exploits in books like Fifty Shades of Gray, but back then, it set the world ablaze with a trend for “new women” who wanted to emulate it, if not in practice then at least in appearance.

women dressed in la garçonne (tomboy) look from the 1920s to the present

In the photo below, Chanel and her friend Vera Bates are thoroughly embracing their garçonne side. They’re wearing oversized plaid blazers with layers that include a collared shirt, a long cardigan, and a sort of ascot tied at the neck. Their pants, which look like denim, are baggy and rolled up or stuffed into socks, and their shoes are heavy-toed. Chanel’s boots look like steel-toed, lace-up work boots.

Coco Chanel and Vera Bates stand outside in menswear with two dogs.

In spite of what I said above about having strong leanings toward menswear, I was surprised to discover in my first attempt at interpreting this look that I felt a little like an old-timey hobo with so many layers piled on. Maybe it’s because I felt my petite frame was weighted down with each piece. In addition, I broke a cardinal rule for petites: never roll up jeans or wear cuffs. It is said to break the line at the ankle and make the legs look shorter.

Still, I had to try it. In the photo below, I am as close to Chanel’s look as I can get: button-down shirt, long cardigan, plaid blazer, topped with my version of her ascot. I’ve put on some “boyfriend” jeans and rolled up the cuffs to reveal my brown lace-up boots.

author dressed in style inspired by Coco Chanel, the garçonne trend, and menswear

It’s not a bad look. I don’t even mind the rolled up jeans that much. But, what I learned is that I can’t go whole hog on the menswear thing. Maybe I feel powerful wearing a blazer and boots, but I need to balance that out with some feminine touches. I need the world to remember I’m still a woman. No, strike that. I need to remember I’m still a woman.

So, I took off the cardigan and baggy jeans, changed my scarf to a lighter color, and slipped on a pair of skinny jeans, which I tucked into my socks. Granted, it is still very masculine. (Friends of mine who have seen this photo equate it to the 1970s Annie Hall look.) I like this look a lot better. What do you think?

If you like these two outfits, scroll down for more details about how to find similar pieces for your wardrobe.

author dressed in style inspired by Coco Chanel, the garçonne trend, and menswear with dog.
The dog likes it too.

author dressed in style inspired by Coco Chanel, the garçonne trend, and menswear with dog.

author dressed in style inspired by Coco Chanel, the garçonne trend, and menswear with dog.

author dressed in style inspired by Coco Chanel, the garçonne trend, and menswear with dog.

Risker lace-up boots

Shop these looks:

First Style:

Zenobia jacket, vintage: Similar on sale at Talbots here, here, and here  |  Cream-Colored Cardigan, thrifted: Similar here, here, and on sale here  |  Crisp White Shirt, thrifted: Similar on ThredUP in 6P, on Thredup in 2P, and on sale at Talbots here  |  Garnet Hill Boyfriend Jeans, no longer available: Similar here  |  Eileen Fisher Scarf, vintage: Similar here and here  |  Rieker Lace-Up Boots: Similar styles here, here, and here  |  Wool Felt Hat by Goorin Bros. from several years ago: Similar here and here

Second Style:

Zenobia jacket, vintage: Similar on sale at Talbots herehere, and here | Crisp White Shirt, thrifted: Similar on ThredUP in 6Pon Thredup in 2P, and on sale at Talbots here  |  Talbots Skinny Ankle Jeans from last year: Similar here and here  |  Eileen Fisher Scarf, vintage: Similar here, here, and here  | Rieker Lace-Up Boots: Similar styles herehere, and here  | Wool Felt Hat by Goorin Bros. from several years ago: Similar here and here

Affiliate link disclaimer: Please note, most but not all of the items linked above are affiliated with companies I am associated with. By clicking the affiliated links and purchasing from those stores, I might receive a small commission. I do not place these links lightly — any company I represent is a company I buy from regularly, including eBay and ThredUP. By purchasing from these stores, you support the work I do here and I greatly appreciate your support! 

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  • Great story! I think you’ve shown a nice “middle” with the skinnier jeans since the jacket has so much visual weight to it! Although I kinda like the sweater hanging out below it (may have to try that myself)!
    It is hard to imagine life before this era, when women didn’t wear pants, and how thankful we should be to some of these pioneer women who paved the road for us!!

    • Thanks, Jodie! I felt better in the skinnier jeans too and agree with you about the jacket and its visual weight! I am soooo thankful for the women and men who have come before us so we have so much freedom of choice! Thank you for always stopping by and cheering me on! ::Hugs!::

    • Sabine, I have a feeling we would be fabulous friends if we lived closer! Your posts always brighten my day and your outfits are ones I could see wearing myself! And now you tell me we had the same taste in music as girls? I had a huge crush on Nick Rhodes when I was a teenager! And who doesn’t love Boy George? 😀

      Have a wonderful evening and thank you for your encouraging comment!

  • Sherry you are so darn cute in BOTH of these menswear looks that it really is a toss up. There’s NO mistaking that you are a lovely woman and your friendly smile reveals a heart and sincerity that is so compelling.
    I’m really enjoying the interesting historical viewpoint on the evolution of these styles from the world of men’s wear. Personally a tweed jacket and a jaunty newsboy cap have ALWAYS been among my favorite looks!