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Revolutions In Fashion: Coco Chanel

Nov 25, 15 Revolutions In Fashion: Coco Chanel

This is a story of a little girl from an orphanage, who was about to change the world of fashion. This is also a story of a strong woman who had to rely on rich men’s help, but was able to do so without losing her pride. This also a story of a great feminist and a revolutionary woman, who’s biography is very hard to write, as she did everything that was possible to hide the details about her past and her personal life, and even the real date of her birth.

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, who will be known by the nickname Coco, was born on August 19, 1883 in France. She was the youngest from the five children. Her mother died when she was six, and her father sent her to an orphanage of the Catholic monastery of Aubazine, where she never stopped waiting for her father to return and take her home. It was in the orphanage, where little Gabrielle learned the trade of a seamstress. During her vacations, spend with relatives in the provincial capital of Moulins, she learnt to sew with more flourish than the nuns at the orphanage were able to teach her.

At the age of 18 Gabrielle Chanel left the orphanage and started working for a local tailor. Wile working as a seamstress, she also started to work as a singer at cafes and concert halls in order to make more money. One of her most known songs performed was a song called “Qui qu’a vu Coco” that was very known and recognized by the public, and also gave Chanel the nickname Coco, that she gladly adopted. It was also believed and said by some, that her nickname came from the French word “cocotte”, which means a kept-woman (at least, being the more polite sense of the word).

During her brief career as a cafe and concert singer, Coco Chanel became involved with wealthy men, who will play a great role in Chanel’s fashion venture. Around the age of 20, Chanel became involved with Etienne Balsan, who offered to help her start a millinery business in Paris. She became his mistress and moved to his chateau, where she lived for three years. It was there that she started designing and creating hats, which then turned into a commercial venture.

Chanel Breton Shirt

Chanel soon left Balsan for one of his even wealthier friends, Arthur “Boy” Capel, a very wealthy industrialist, who became the love of her life. He installed her in a Parisian apartment and financed her first shops.  In 1910 Chanel opened a millinery shop in Paris, then expanding to Deauville and Biarritz. The ladies of those towns immediately fell in love with Chanel’s unique style. Very soon after opening those shops, Chanel was expanding to couture, opening her first couture boutique in 1913. Coco Chanel introduced a revolutionary style of dress for women, borrowing items normally worn by men, and transferring them into very stylish female fashion. Back in the 1920s, rich women wore ornate and expensive dresses made out of exotic fabrics. Countering that, Chanel created outfits out of jersey material, which was a type of cloth that is used primarily for men’s underwear. Chanel claimed that she chose this material because of its low price and because it complemented a woman’s body. “I make fashion women can live in, breathe in, feel comfortable in and look younger in,” she said. Chanel’s relationship with Boy Capel lasted for nine years, even after he married in 1918. In 1919, one of the most devastating events in Coco Chanel’s life occurred, when Capel died in a car accident. She commissioned a roadside memorial at the site of the accident. Many years after the tragic event, Chanel told a friend: “His death was a terrible blow to me. In losing Capel I lost everything. What followed, was not a life of happiness, I have to say.”

But life never stops for anyone, and by the 1920’s Chanel’s fashion house expanded considerably, and her “à la garçonne” (boyish) sophisticated look was setting a trend. The simplicity and the democracy of Chanel’s designs were always a good reason to favour her creations, among the others. Maison Chanel was established at 31 Rue Cambon in Paris (which remains its headquarters to this day), and became a strong fashion force. Coco Chanel became a style icon herself, with her striking bob haircut, the simple striped top, and the jersey pants. A post-war generation of women was tired of the restricting corsets that, besides everything else, were very unpractical. Therefore, Chanel’s suggestion came in the right time, helping the women to find a new style of dress.

Chanel №5


In 1921 Coco Chanel introduced her perfume, the iconic Chanel №5, that still remains one of the world’s most loved and known perfumes. Hollywood’s sexiest blonde, Marilyn Monroe, made the perfume even more popular, after giving the most alluring answer for her first LIFE magazine cover. “What do you wear to bed?” the magazine asked her. “Just a few drops of Chanel No. 5,” she responded. It is estimated that a bottle of Chanel №5 is sold worldwide every 55 seconds.

In addition to fashion, Coco Chanel also became a popular figure in the Parisian world of art and literature. She designed costumes for the Ballets Russes (The Dhiagilev Seasons), together with other theatrical plays like Cocteau’s ‘Antigone’ and cinematic works such as ‘La Regle de Jeu’. Among her friends were Pablo Picasso and the composer Igor Stravinsky, who became her lover for a time.

Chanel and Stravinsky (from Chanel and Her World book by Edmonde Charles-Roux)

Another important romance for Chanel began in 1923, when she met a wealthy Duke of Westminster, with whom she had a long relationship that, according to rumors, ended in a marriage proposal, to which Chanel reportedly said “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster – but there is only one Chanel”.

Duke of Westminster and Coco Chanel 1920

Beginning in 1924, Chanel, inspired after borrowing sportswear from her duke, enlisted a Scottish factory to produce her iconic tweed fabrics for everything from sportswear to suits and coats. Chanel switched factories in the ’30s to northern France and began combining her classic tweeds with wools, silks, cottons, and even cellophane to give them a more high fashion (and lighter weight) style. The tweed trend spread widely, and the look quickly became popular throughout many couture houses in Paris. The collarless jackets Chanel made from the tweed became so associated with her name that we now refer to the style as a Chanel jacket. On the inside the jackets were lined with contrast silk which was the same silk she usually used for the blouse that teamed with it. The insides were weighted with gold chain and the buttons all stamped on the back with the Chanel symbol. Edges were trimmed with braids, velvet or ribbon.

Chanel Tweed jacket

In 1924 Chanel also launched her first line of costume jewellery. The collection was described by the Harper’s Bazaar as “the most revolutionary design of the times”. The most recognizable pieces were the long necklaces of real pearls, mixed with fake pearls and crystals and other glass beads.

Chanel logo was designed in 1925 by mademoiselle Chanel herself, and has remained unchanged ever since. It turned out to be one of the most recognizable symbols in the fashion world with its overlapping double C.

In 1926 Coco Chanel introduced her most iconic design – the little black dress. It was designed to be versatile, made with a very simple cut, long sleeves and the black crêpe de Chine: at the time when black was still considered as a colour of mourning. The dress was calf-length, straight and decorated only by few diagonal lines. The effortless elegance of the dress seemed like a paradox back then, but while unable to explain or fully understand it, many women were very glad to adopt it, and they were right. You cannot go wrong with black. You can never go wrong with a little black dress. In 1926 Vogue called Vogue called the LBD “Chanel’s Ford”, like the Model T, that was simple and accessible for women of all classes, and correctly predicted that the little black dress, worn with a string of white pearls, will become a uniform for all women of taste. The LBD became an essential in every woman’s closet, remaining the symbol of elegance till now-days.

Little Black Dress

The famous Chanel purse has been incepted in 1929. At the time it was considered to be lower class to carry a bag over your shoulder, however never one to follow the rules, Coco, who was tired of carrying her bag, rethought this and developed a new shoulder bag style. She added thin straps to the purse after being inspired by the straps found on soldiers’ bags. Twenty six years later she would recreate the bag, and introduce one of the most known Chanel designs.

By 1930s, Maison Chanel expanded even more, and the mademoiselle had 2000 seamstress working for her. In the thirties Chanel designed and wore a striped breton top with yachting pants. Adopting sailors’ bell-bottoms, her yachting trousers, which she paired with knitted cardigans, were part of her innovative sportswear designs and gave women the freedom to move around unrestricted. It has never been out of fashion since. The economic depression of 1930s had a very negative impact on the business of fashion. But it was the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, that made her close the doors of her fashion house and all of her shops, closing the business entirely.

During the Second World War, Chanel served as a nurse for a short time, and then became involved with a German officer, Hans Gunther von Dincklage, who was 13 years younger than her, and helped her in getting a special permission to stay at her apartment at the Hotel Ritz during the occupation. This affair became a scandal after the war, and Coco Chanel was blamed to betray the country, and she was interrogated. There were many rumours around the affair, and some even wondered whether Winston Churchill worked behind the scenes on Chanel’s behalf. Although Chanel was not charged as a collaborator, she suffered from a negative public opinion, while many still saw her as a woman who became involved with a Nazi officer and betrayed the country. Sarcastically commenting the rumours, Chanel once said, that when a woman at her age gets to have an affair, especially with a younger man, she does not check his passport. Mademoiselle Chanel eventually decided to get away from the negativity around her, leaving Paris, and spending few years in Switzerland, in a sort of exile. She also lived at her country house in Roquebrune for a while.

In 1954, at the age of 71, after the self-chosen exile, Chanel returned to the world of fashion. She was quoted then saying that designs of those times, that included Dior’s New Look, were “illogical” with “waist cinchers, padded bras, heavy skirts, and stiffened jackets.” She also said that only a man can design something so uncomfortable for a woman. In her collection made that year, she expanded her signature style with the introduction of pea jackets and bell-bottoms for women. While the collection got harsh critiques in Europe, called her style old-fashioned and boring, it became a huge hit in the United States. Many Hollywood stars including Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly fell in love with her effortlessly stylish suits. Chanel’s feminine and easy-fitting designs soon again won over the shoppers around the world.

The 2.55 quilted handbag was created by Chanel in February 1955, hence the name. Each and every aspect of the bag was designed by Coco with a memory, story or specific use in mind. The lining’s burgundy colour represents the uniforms from the convent where she grew up. There is a zippered compartment on the inside of the front flap, where Chanel used to hide her love letters. The exterior pocket was made specifically for carrying money in. The long straps on the bag were first inspired by the straps on soldier’s bags. Chained straps were added to the Chanel bag in question, with interwoven leather as the legend goes that Coco didn’t have too many resources on her hands at the time. The chain straps, that were strong and light, allowed women’s hand to remain free. The original lock was known as the ‘Mademoiselle lock’, called so due to Coco Chanel’s unmarried status.

Coco Chanel with a 2.55 bag

In 1957 mademoiselle Chanel created the two toned simple slingback shoe. Conceived in beige with a contrasting black toe cap, the shoe made a very flattering effect, shortening the foot and lengthening the leg. Chanel’s two-tone colour scheme featured in many of her designs, and still featuring in the her famous Chanel ballet flats, tights and current Chanel collections designed by Karl Lagerfeld.

In 1970 Chanel introduced another perfume, Chanel №19, named after the date of her birth. Gabrielle Coco Chanel never got married, but reportedly had many love affairs till a very old age, with men and with women. She continued working till the last day of her life.

Mademoiselle Chanel died peacefully at her apartment in the Hotel Ritz on January 10, 1971, leaving a tremendous legacy of style. Hundreds crowded together at the church of the Madeleine to mourn her death, and as a tribute, many of them wore a Chanel suit.