Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) French
Prudence Glynn, a fashion journalist, described Coco Chanel’s style as functional chic, which is completely accurate, seeing as her clothes came from the desire to dress herself in comfortable functional pieces without extraneous details. Practicality was the genesis of her style, in the ease of putting on a man’s sweater, the abandonment of the corset, and the light comfortable use of jersey as the fabric of choice.
An outsider because of her lower class background, Chanel’s connections and love affairs with men of status and importance allowed her access to wealthy clients and the money to back her retail ventures. Originally a milliner selling hats in a small shop, she soon branched out to clothes.
Her early style consisted of an unstructured cardigan-like jacket in plain jersey and calf-length straight jersey skirts worn with white blouses; otherwise, known as the “dressmaker suit.” Though now known almost exclusively for her eponymous Chanel suit, the popularity of that design did not come until the second half of Mme Chanel’s career when she reopened her business in 1953 after a fifteen-year retirement. Though similar to her earlier suit design, the later style jacket of 1964 consisted of loosely woven tweed or mohair trimmed with braid, gold buttons, and lined in fine silk. The patch pockets used on her jackets caused criticism because they were thought ungainly and unladylike and their placement at the hips altered the posture of the women who wore them. However, her dresses were still feminine and skimmed the body, no bouffant or crinoline looks from her.
Her style, innovations, and influence on fashion:
- Her favorite colors; navy blue, beige, black and white coincided with the WWI restriction on colors used for clothing.
- In 1921, she launched Chanel No. 5 in direct contrast to Paul Poiret’s earlier and more fanciful fragrances, both in presentation and in formulation. No. 5 was the first to combine natural and synthetic components to insure a long lasting scent.
- Along with her suit, other iconic Chanel details were the combination of beige and black, black-toed, beige sling-back pumps, quilted handbags, silk Camellia flower brooches, strings of pearls (real and fake), straw boater hats, and gold linked chains.
- Jersey fabric; formerly only used for underwear, and tweed were considered cheap and mainly working class fabrics. However, her use of lightly quilted silk linings and her superb tailoring made them chic.
Hollywood connection: In 1931, she was employed by Goldwyn Mayer Studios. For one million dollars she was contracted to travel to Hollywood twice a year. She created the costumes for Palmy Days (Jean Harlow), Tonight or Never (Gloria Swanson), both disasters in 1931 and The Greeks Had a Word for It (Joan Blondell) a success in 1932, before she quit disillusioned with what the studios wanted from her – a style that was not her own.
Home sewing connection: In the 1950s, Elle magazine published a House of Chanel pattern offer in their magazine and received over 25,000 requests!
Images: Karl Lagerfeld and Gerhard Steidl, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 5 to August 7, 2005 exhibit.
Sources: Chanel, (2005) Harold Koda; Dressmakers of France, (1956) Mary Brooks Pickens, Dora Loues Miller; Secrets of the Couturiers, (1984) Frances Kennett; Fashion(2003) Christopher Breward; Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, (2002) James Laver.