Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel (19 August 1883 – 10 January 1971) was a French fashion designer and founder of the Chanel brand. She is the only fashion designer listed on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Along with Paul Poiret, Chanel was credited with liberating women from the constraints of the “corseted silhouette” and popularizing the acceptance of a sportive, casual chic as the feminine standard in the post-World War I era. A prolific fashion creator, Chanel’s influence extended beyond couture clothing. Her design aesthetic was realized in jewelry, handbags, and fragrance. Her signature scent, Chanel No. 5, has become an iconic product.
- She was born in France in 1883 and was part of a big family, as one of five children.
- When Coco was 12, her mother passed away from tuberculosis and her father left the family; she spent the next six years in an orphanage.
- She became a licensed hat-maker and owned her first shop in 1910.
- She introduced her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, in 1922, and it was one of the first perfumes ever to mix natural and artificial essences.
- She invented the “Little Black Dress” in 1926, which French Vogue dubbed “Chanel’s Ford”, for its practicality and marketability.
- She is credited with popularizing the concept of “costume jewelry” in the 1920s, creating seasonal jewelry that mixed fake pearls with real stones.
- She introduced the idea of using jersey fabric to create clothing, which had prior been used only for men’s undergarments.
- She and her brand are most well known for costume jewelry, two-tone shoes, quilted bags, and simple suits made of tweed or jersey.
- Her classic Chanel suit became famous for its flattering cut, simple fabric, and specially weighted lining, to give it that perfect hang.
- She died in 1971 at the Ritz Hotel in Paris at the age of 88.
The Chanel bag
Identifying a need to liberate women’s hands from the encumbrance of a hand held bag, Chanel conceived of a handbag that would accomplish this stylishly. Christened the “2.55” (named after the date of the bag’s creation: February 1955), its design, as with much of her creative inspiration, was informed by her convent days and her love of the sporting world.
The original version was constructed of jersey or leather, the outside featuring a hand-stitched quilted design influenced by the jackets worn by jockeys. The chain strap was a nod to her orphanage years, reminiscent to Chanel of the abbey caretakers who wore such waist chains to hold keys. The burgundy red uniform worn by the convent girls was transmuted into the bag’s interior lining.
The bag design went through a reincarnation in the 1980s when it was updated by Karl Lagerfeld. Known as the Reissue, the bag retained its original classic shape, with the clasp and chain strap differing from its initial form. Lagerfeld worked the House of Chanel logo, “CC” into the rectangular twist lock and wove leather through the shoulder chain.
The camellia had an established association with Alexandre Dumas’s literary work, “La Dame aux Camélias” (”The Lady of the Camellias“). Its heroine and her story had resonated for Chanel since her youth. The flower itself had become identified with the courtesan who would wear a camellia to advertise her availability. The camellia came to be identified with The House of Chanel, making its first appearance as a decorative element on a white-trimmed black suit in 1933.
The Little Black Dress
After the jersey suit, the concept of the little black dress is often cited as a Chanel contribution to the fashion lexicon and as an article of clothing survives to this day. Its first incarnation was executed in thin silk, crèpe de chine, and had long sleeves. Chanel started making little black dresses in wool or chenille for the day and in satin, crepe or velvet for the evening. The dress was fashionable, yet comfortable and practical because it was stripped of all excess. In 1926, the American edition of Vogue highlighted such a Chanel dress, dubbing it the garçonne (little boy look). They predicted it would “become sort of a uniform for all women of taste”, embodying a standardized aesthetic, which the magazine likened to the democratic appeal of the ubiquitous black Ford automobile. Its spare look generated widespread criticism from male journalists who complained: “no more bosom, no more stomach, no more rump…Feminine fashion of this moment in the 20th century will be baptized lop off everything.” The popularity of the little black dress can be attributed to the timing at which it was introduced. The 1930’s brought in the Great Depression Era during which women desired affordable fashion. Chanel quoted, “Thanks to me they (non-wealthy) can walk around like millionaires.
The Chanel Suit
The Chanel tweed suit was built for comfort and practicality. It consisted of a jacket and skirt in a matching Scottish tweed and a blouse and jacket lining in jersey or a silk crepe. The jacket was piping and gold buttons. The tweed she used was supple and light. She did not stiffen the material or use shoulder pads. She also cut the jackets on the straight grain, without adding bust darts. This allowed for quick and easy movement. She designed the neckline to leave the neck comfortably free and also added pockets that could actually hold things. On most other suits, pockets were just for show. For a higher level of comfort, the skirt had a grosgrain across the hips, instead of a belt.
More importantly, meticulous attention was placed on detail during fittings. Measurements were taken in a standing position with arms folded at shoulder height. She also conducted crash tests with mannequins where they would walk around, hop on a platform as if they were stepping on an imaginary bus, and then bend over as if they were getting into a sports car. She wanted to make sure women could do all of these things while wearing her suit, without exposing unwanted parts of their body. Each customer could get repeated adjustments until the suit was comfortable enough for her to perform her daily activities with comfort and ease.