Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel is one of the most influential couturiers of the 20th Century. She was a trained milliner, but she went beyond hats to become an innovator and trailblazer in fashion. Her new style of sartorial styling freed women from corsets, lace frills, and offered them sailor shirts, wide-leg pants, and instead, corsets.
She once stated that “nothing is more beautiful then freedom of the body” and her designs were based on these words. Chanel’s silhouettes were fluid, androgynous, while her designs were loose and democratic, as was her LBD, the iconic little black dress. She wanted women to be able to move and breathe in her clothes just as men do in theirs. In many ways, her work was a form female emancipation.
Sunday marks 50 years since Chanel died at the age of 87. Her legacy, however, will not be lost. She not only revolutionized how we dress but also helped to create a new idea of what a fashion brand could look like: an all-encompassing force capable of taking care of all aspects of a woman’s life, including formal wear, holiday attire, and evening wear.
Chanel’s vision was captured in “Coco-isms,” which read like the acerbic precursors to today’s ubiquitous inspirational quotes: “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has zero future” or “If your sad, add more lipstick. Attack.”
These are eight important style innovations by a designer who once said, “I don’t do fashion.” I am fashion.”
Trousers for women
Chanel did not invent women’s trousers. They were already present in wardrobes before World War I when women began to take on jobs that were traditionally done by men. They were a fashion item that Chanel undoubtedly popularized.
She liked to wear pants (she borrowed them from her male lovers) and began wearing “beach pajamas” on vacation on the French Riviera as early as 1918. She took inspiration from the straight, loose cuts of sailor pants and gave them a comfortable, loose shape.
This garment was considered to be risky due to the association of pajamas with the bedroom. However, it became a staple for wealthy women and a part of Chanel’s collections by the mid-1920s.
Breton tops were worn by fishermen and sailors in France since the 19th Century. They are striped sweaters made of tightly knit wool that protects them from the elements. Chanel made them fashionable.
In the 1910s, she sold striped pieces in her boutique in Deauville (Normandy), where they were popular. They were reworked in jersey with patch pockets and thick belts. This nautical style was more casual than the Belle Epoque’s stiff aesthetic, so it quickly became a favorite among fashionable women on and off the beaches.
Breton stripes will soon be featured in American and British Vogue. You may even have one in your closet today.
Fashion today is known for mixing the high and the low. It was a radical move when Chanel included costume jewelry in her collections. This made something that was once considered tacky and cheap a symbol for modern style. Paul Poiret, Chanel’s early rival, should also be credited with the pioneering of this trend.
Chanel once stated that a woman should mix real and fake jewelry. “The purpose of jewelry is not to make a woman appear rich, but to adorn her.
In the 1930s, she teamed up with Duke Fulco de Verdura, an Italian jeweler, to create her famous Maltese Cross bracelets. They were adorned with semi-precious multicolored stones. She was already releasing signature necklaces that were made of delicate, delicate chains intertwined and embellished with glittering and faux pearls by the end of that decade. Chanel wore more layers of fake pearls, and the trend was born.
The little black dress
Vogue published an illustration in 1926 of a black, simple dress made from crepe de Chine. The dress featured long sleeves with a low waist and was embellished with pearls. It was described by the magazine as “Chanel’s Ford”, referring to the popular Model T at the time.
This ensemble was called the “little black gown” and the rest is history. The LBD was a staple in women’s wardrobes throughout the 20th century, becoming the go-to outfit for many during the Great Depression. There have been many imitations and iterations, but Chanel’s original LBD is timeless.
The Chanel suit was a game changer, not only for fashion, but also for women’s sartorial freedom.
In the 1920s Coco Chanel created her first two-piece set. She was inspired by sportswear and menswear as well as the suits worn by her lover, the Duke de Westminster. Chanel created a slim skirt with a collarless jacket from tweed to liberate women from the long skirts and restrictive corsets of previous decades.
It was modern and slightly masculine in cut, making it ideal for a post-war woman starting her career in business. The suit was popular throughout the years and is featured in many Chanel collections, including Karl Lagerfeld’s.
The Chanel suit was worn by many of the most powerful women of history, including Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Brigitte Bardot. According to legend, Chanel had challenged Ernest Beaux, a French-Russian perfumer, to create a fragrance that would “smell like women, not roses” a year earlier. Beaux gave her a number of samples of perfume to choose from, and the result was a mix of 80 synthetic and natural ingredients.