How Coco Chanel changed the course of women’s fashion


Written by Marianna Cerini

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was one of the most influential seamstresses of the 20th century. A milliner by training, she went beyond hats to become a rebel and fashion pioneer, creating a new style of dress that freed women from corsets and lacy ruffles by instead offering them sailor shirts and wide pants.

“Nothing is more beautiful than the freedom of the body,” she once said, and her designs lived on these words: Chanel’s silhouettes were fluid and androgynous, her designs loose and – in the case of her iconic little black dress, or LBD – – democratic. She wanted women to move and breathe in her clothes, just like men did in theirs. Her work was, in many ways, a form of female emancipation.

Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Chanel, 87, although her legacy lives on. In addition to revolutionizing the way we dress, she helped shape a new ideal of what a fashion brand could be: an all-encompassing force that could take care of all aspects of a woman’s life, from formal outfits to holiday wardrobes to evening ones.

Chanel captured her vision in “Coco-isms” which read as scathing precursors to today’s ubiquitous inspirational quotes – “a woman who does not wear perfume has no future” or “If you are sad add more lipstick and attack. ”

Here are 8 important style innovations from a designer who said, “I don’t do fashion. I am fashion. ”

Women’s pants

Chanel didn’t invent women’s pants – they had already entered wardrobes during World War I, when women began to take on jobs traditionally held by men. But she undeniably popularized them as a fashion garment.

The designer herself liked to wear trousers (she often borrowed them from her male lovers) and, as early as 1918, began to wear flowing “beach pajamas” while on vacation on the French Riviera. Taking inspiration from the straight and wide cuts of sailor pants, giving them a loose and comfortable shape, she has matched them with oversized shirts or sleeveless tops.

The garment considered risky at the time, due to the association of pajamas with the bedroom, but by the mid-1920s it had become a staple among wealthy ladies and a part of the Chanel collections.

Nautical tops

Chanel turned stripes into fashion. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

French sailors and fishermen have been sporting Breton tops – striped sweaters in tightly knitted wool to protect them from the elements – since the 19th century. Chanel, however, turned them into fashion.

Striped pieces appeared in her boutique in the seaside resort of Deauville, Normandy, in the 1910s. She reworked them in jersey, giving them patch pockets and accessorizing them with chunky belts. The nautical look was relaxed and much less serious than the stiff Belle Époque aesthetic, quickly becoming a hit among stylish women on and off the beach.

Soon, Breton stripes found their way into the pages of British and American Vogue. And even today, there’s a good chance you have some in your closet.

Costume jewelry

Claudia Schiffer, wearing large gold earrings, walks the runway during the Chanel Haute Couture show as part of Paris Fashion Week in January 1990. Credit: Victor Virgle / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images

Mixing the top with the bottom is a common practice in fashion today. But it was seen as radical when Chanel introduced costume jewelry into her collections, turning something cheap and tacky into a symbol of modern style (though her early rival Paul Poiret should be credited with pioneering the trend).

“A woman has to mix the false and the true,” Chanel once said. “The purpose of jewelry is not to make a woman rich but to adorn her; It’s not the same thing. ”

In the early 1930s, she collaborated with Italian jeweler Duke Fulco de Verdura to create what would become her iconic Maltese cross cuffs, adorned with multicolored semi-precious stones. By the end of that decade, she was releasing signature necklaces made of dangling, dainty chains, and interwoven with faux pearls and sparkling stones. Other faux pearl chains followed – worn proudly by Chanel herself – and a trend was born.

The little black dress

French model Bettina Graziani wearing a black Coco Chanel dress in July 1967.

French model Bettina Graziani wearing a black Coco Chanel dress in July 1967. Credit: Reg Lancaster / Daily Express / Archives Hulton / Getty Images

In 1926, Vogue published a design of a simple, calf-length black dress made from crepe de chine. It featured long, narrow sleeves and a low waist, and was adorned with a pearl necklace. The magazine described it as “Chanel’s Ford”, referring to the very popular Model T. at the time. In other words, it was such a simple garment that it could be accessible to any buyer – “a kind of uniform for all women.” of taste ”, as the post puts it.

The set has been dubbed the ‘Little Black Dress’, and the rest is history. During the Great Depression, the LBD became the outfit of choice for an entire generation of consumers and, in the decades that followed, a staple in the wardrobe of women everywhere. Countless iterations and knockoffs have followed, but the understated elegance of the original Chanel issue remains unmatched.

The Chanel costume

Coco Chanel in Paris, France in January 1963.

Coco Chanel in Paris, France in January 1963. Credit: Michael Hardy / Daily Express / Archives Hulton / Getty Images

The Chanel suit was a game-changer – not just for fashion but for women’s sartorial liberation.

Coco Chanel presented her first two-piece set in the 1920s, inspired by menswear and sportswear, as well as costumes from her then-lover, the Duke of Westminster. Keen to free women from the restrictive corsets and long skirts of previous decades, Chanel designed a slim skirt and collarless jacket in tweed, a fabric then considered distinctly unglamorous.

The suit was modern, slightly masculine in its cut, and ideal for the post-war woman making her first foray into business. Its popularity has continued over the years and has been featured in the house of Chanel collections, including those of Karl Lagerfeld.

Some of the most influential women of all time also wore the Chanel costume, from Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly to Brigitte Bardot and Princess Diana.

Chanel n ° 5

Close-up of model holding bottle of Chanel No.5 perfume.

Close-up of model holding bottle of Chanel No.5 perfume. Credit: Fotiades / Collection Conde Nast / Getty Images

Chanel launched her eponymous perfume No. 5 in 1921. A year earlier, according to legend, she had challenged Franco-Russian perfumer Ernest Beaux to create a perfume that would make its wearer “smell like a woman and not a rose.” The result was a blend of 80 natural and synthetic ingredients, which Beaux presented to her along with a numbered series of fragrance samples to choose from.

She chose the fifth. The mixture overturned the notion of perfumes as a symbol of high social class, instead pushing the idea that women could be several things: natural and man-made, provocative and pure.

“It was what I expected,” Chanel later said. “A perfume like nothing else. A woman’s perfume, with a woman’s perfume. ”

It was also one of the biggest and most successful branding exercises in fashion history. By placing her name prominently on every bottle and advertisement for her perfumes, Chanel has linked them forever to the identity of the house.

Robes in jersey

The designer in a casual but chic outfit.

The designer in a casual but chic outfit. Credit: Hulton Deutsch / Corbis / Getty Images

Chanel loved the jersey. The fabric was particularly important in its sportswear-influenced pieces, to the shock of its customers accustomed to satin and silk.

It was an unusual choice for the time: the jersey was until then mainly used for men’s underwear.

But it was easy to work with and comfortable, summing up everything the designer wanted to create for her clients. Especially for Chanel, still the entrepreneur, it was also relatively inexpensive and helped keep costs down as she established herself and her label.

She was the first designer to popularize the swimsuit in women’s fashion, using the material for dresses, skirts, sweaters and more – a tradition that Lagerfeld has maintained as artistic director in the decades since her birth. dead.

Bag 2.55

Fashion and lifestyle blogger May Berthelot wearing a Chanel 2.55 bag in Paris, France.

Fashion and lifestyle blogger May Berthelot wearing a Chanel 2.55 bag in Paris, France. Credit: Edward Berthelot / French Selection / Getty Images

One of the most iconic Chanel bags of all time, the 2.55 broke all the rules when it was launched in February 1955 (hence its name). It was the first luxury women’s bag to come with a shoulder strap – earlier pouches, including those from Chanel, all had to be hand-carried.

The revolutionary modification offered new freedom to women and transformed the way that women’s bags were designed. Critics found the 2.55 crude, but buyers loved its practicality. And practical, it sure was: the chain strap could double up and swing from one shoulder, an exterior flap pocket was designed to store cash, and the center pocket was perfectly formed for lipstick.

The 2.55 also introduced two Chanel signatures: the deep burgundy color used in its lining, and the diamond stitch quilting, inspired by the jackets worn by men during races.

Top image: Coco Chanel with Duke Laurino of Rome on a beach at Lido.


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