Coco & Chanel: Creating Herself and a Whole Universe, from Croquis to Couture MIND(s that filled) THE GAP(s) [XVI]
“Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.” (Coco Chanel)
Imagine the epitome of an elegant, stylish woman of modern times. Is she sporting chic suit pants and a matching blazer, or maybe a timeless black dress? Is her jewellery exquisite without overbearing opulence, perfectly assorted to her handbag and shoes? In this case, she is most surely also wearing a fine perfume, a subtle but essential element for her demeanour, demeanour that states – not whispers, nor screams – concinnity and confidence.
For most concepts we have come to consider as embodiments of good taste and functional refinement we must thank Coco Chanel. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was a French fashion designer, couturier and businesswoman, who became and has remained a cultural icon to this day. Founding her renowned, homonymous brand, Chanel left her mark as a prolific designer on couture clothing, jewellery, handbags, and fragrance. She is the only fashion designer listed on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
Chanel is famously credited with freeing women from the constraints of the “corseted silhouette” and popularizing a sporty, casual chic as the new standard of feminine style. Her innovations are rather reinterpretations than inventions – old ideas reborn as new solutions, and becoming the novel standard to be aspired to. In accordance with her general aesthetic and perspective over life, she embraced innovation by simplification and liberation, rather than by complication.
Coco Chanel did more than create fashion, however iconic her fashion was, is and will continue to be. The creator herself stated her view that: “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street. Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening”.
She inspired women and men alike, and her creations rippled through society, pushing social norms forward. And that is, perhaps, the ultimate achievement of any innovation – not only temporary success, however grand that might be, but managing to become the new standard.
The creator & the woman
“My life didn’t please me, so I created my life.”
The modest beginnings of her life did not anticipate the grandeur and glamour that were to come. Often romanticized later on by others and by herself, Chanel faced quite numerous hardships and challenges that, however, shaped her skills and outlook and translated into the creations which ensorcelled the world.
She was born in 1883, in Saumur, France, and had very impoverished origins. Chanel was actually a misspelling error of “Chasnel”, the official name of her parents. As a young girl, she was placed in an orphanage at Aubazine, where she learnt to sew; it was, however, an experience which contributed to her rather cynical attitude later in life.
If her family name was an accident of fate, her first name (Coco) was a self-chosen statement. After leaving the orphanage, she found employment as a seamstress and, when not sewing, she used to entertain the military habitués of cabarets, as a singer. As such, the nickname Coco was borrowed from the frequently sung cabaret song “Who Has Seen Coco?”. Much later in life, it was playfully joked that she was called Coco for hosting “the most fabulous cocaine parties in Paris”.
Although remembered in her youth for her vibrant allure and radiant presence, her singing talent was mediocre, which led to her decision of not following the career of a singer.
Her pastime as a poseuse enabled her to meet several cavalry officers who became her lovers and, more importantly, her investors: Étienne Balsan and Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel. Chanel got accustomed to the life of the rich, to luxury and to beauty. As long as she lived, Chanel enjoyed the attention of many of the most influential men of the era, but she never married nor had any children. She is remembered for saying: “As long as you know men are like children, you know everything!” – and, from this as well as from many other perspectives, Coco proved herself to be an erudite.
The creation & the empire
“Adornment, what a science! Beauty, what a weapon! Modesty, what elegance!”
Before the name of the Chanel business convinced women, Chanel the woman convinced men to invest in her business. With their money, she founded her first Parisian shops, starting with 1910, as a licensed milliner. Beginning as a hat designer, she soon captured the attention of fashionable starlets and upper-class ladies, continuing to grow her business, open more and more shops and expand the range of her creations.
By 1919, Chanel was officially registered as a couturière; by 1927, Chanel owned five properties on the Rue Cambon, one of the most fashionable districts of Paris. She designed couture and more casual apparel, appropriate for active and sporty women, like herself. She also created jewellery, accessories, perfume – all in a manner which, at the time, was unseen.
She threw herself into designing dance costumes for the Ballets Russes, as a lover of the Russian artistic scene. She tried her hand at designing movie costumes for Hollywood, but found the American cinematic environment a vulgar “capital of bad taste”. The New Yorker wrote that Chanel did not fit in with Hollywood because “they told her dresses weren’t sensational enough. She made a lady look like a lady. Hollywood wants a lady to look like two ladies”.
The Chanel couture house was a flourishing business enterprise, by 1935 employing around 4,000 people. Everything she created, wore, embraced or engaged in was immediately copied. Even the sun-kissed skin can be considered one of her, albeit accidental, innovations – when she returned sun-tanned from a seaside holiday, the century-old fashion of pale, white skin was suddenly changed.
The controversy & comeback
“In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.”
But, as the 1930s progressed, her success was subsequently threatened by the Second World War and by the rise of new designers, such as Elsa Schiaparelli or Christian Dior.
Coco Chanel’s own involvement during the wartime is a matter of much speculation and controversy, maybe more than any other aspect of her already unconventional and eventful life. Suspected to be an undercover Nazi spy for Germany, some documents declassified and released by French intelligence agencies more recently, in 2014, seem to confirm her espionage. After the war, in 1944, Chanel was interrogated by the épuration – the Free French Purge Committee. She was released due to the lack of documentation and, according to much gossip, due to Churchill’s intervention.
Chanel also had her own, more personal war to wage due to ownership rights for her iconic fragrances, with the Wertheimer brothers. They were the initial investors and majority-owners of the Parfums Chanel brand and, in a rather dramatic, script-like manner, they were Jewish. However, their fate was more fortunate than of many other Jewish victims of the war, as they outlived it unharmed and in the following years managed to strike peace with the designer.
Chanel has remained to this day an enigmatic character, with the glamour of a film noir’s femme fatale rather than the pristine aura of an ingenue. A feminist icon, yet often accused of homophobia; a progressive artist, yet supposed antisemitic spy – she appears to have played a heroic, a revolutionary as well as a villainous role in being one of the most influential persons of the 20th century. What is certain is that she never permitted herself to become an anodyne bore, and by her own words: “You live but once; you might as well be amusing”.
However, these suspicions did temporarily cloud her reputation. In 1954 she regained the spotlight with her comeback collection, reopening her couture house after 15 years (when the war imposed its closing). The international press praised it once again as a breakthrough.
One of the many female friends Chanel kept throughout her life noted the designer for “her genius, lethal wit, sarcasm and maniacal destructiveness, which intrigued and appalled everyone”; Chanel maintained her youthful outlook and unapologetic attitude until the end of her life. She died in her beloved Paris, in 1971.
Innovation & legacy
“Fashion changes, but style endures.”
Almost everything Coco Chanel envisioned and came to create was, at that time, not only a coup de maître but also a bold innovation. As a person who believed in timeless style but despised temporary fashion, she would probably be glad to know that, today, her innovations are considered the standard in fashion.
Her general aesthetic, which she both endorsed and promoted, was one of youthful radiance and liberated confidence, suitable for the young, modern woman who did not want style to hinder any of her freedom, be it movement or expression. As such, this image fit and contoured the famous flapper look of the 20s, and the independent and sporty Chanel, with her slender figure, buzz haircut and tanned skin, was both a muse and an artist.
Chanel is often rightfully credited with freeing women from the past constraints of corsets and other such confiding garments. This can be considered an innovation by abolition, and, in her own words, her goal was “always to remove and to pluck, never to add. The greatest beauty is the freedom of the body”.
Another former-radical style she consolidated, being among the first ones to adopt it, was women wearing trousers. A lover of trousers herself, often borrowing her boyfriends’ suits, she began designing trousers for women to wear while doing sports, but soon enough trousers became a fashion statement rather than a functional choice.
Coco’s tendency to take inspiration from men’s fashion was not limited to trousers and loose silhouettes. One of her first creative triumphs was her revolutionary use of jersey, a material which used to be relegated to the manufacture of men undergarments and to sportswear. Considered too mundane and basic to be used in couture, Chanel however appreciated everything from the qualities of the fabric (which draped well and suited her designs, already inspired by menswear) to the low costs (especially an advantage at the beginning of her career). Jersey was soon adopted for high and casual fashion alike, for numerous reasons: its aspect and versatility, women starting to dress more practically, as well as due to shortages of other materials caused by the wars.
After the jersey suit, the famous little black dress is yet another example of Chanel’s contributions to the fashion lexicon. A style – not a mere trend – still worn to this day, it became one of the pieces that any woman who dares to consider herself even somewhat stylish possess. In 1912-1913, the actress Suzanne Orlandi was one of the first women to wear a little black dress designed by Chanel, in velvet and with a white collar. Chanel viewed simplicity as “the keynote of all true elegance”, which almost always showed in her work.
At the same time, as Chanel enjoyed everything lavish and sybaritic life had to offer, she considered luxury to be not the opposite of poverty, but “the opposite of vulgarity”. And so, she brought jewellery to the everyday life and outfits of women worldwide. Coco Chanel greatly popularised the use of faux jewellery, using less expensive pieces (such as fake pearls) to introduce a line of accessories that represented a true conceptual innovation. Prior to this, jewellery was strictly categorized into either fine or costume jewellery. Drawing inspiration from global culture, she combined fine materials, such as gemstones, and the likes of costume jewellery into everyday pieces.
Another innovative accessory was a handbag inspired by soldier’s bags, introduced in 1929. Following her comeback, the design was updated in 1955 and became the well-known “2.55”. The bag’s design was inspired by many quintessential aspects of Chanel’s own life, from her days in the orphanage to her love of the sporting world.
Her active lifestyle, and her interest in everything related to sports, hunting, the great outdoors and the nautical, left multiple marks on her creations. She appropriated the clothing associated with nautical pursuits: the horizontal striped shirt, crewneck sweaters, and espadrille shoes, all which were traditionally sailor’s (masculine) attire. As mentioned before, she also made suntan not only acceptable, but fashionable and a symbol of status, of having a life of leisure and privilege.
Last but certainly not least, Coco also changed the world of perfume, with her icon Chanel No. 5. Before Chanel, women were only wearing two scents – the higher-society ladies would wear a floral scent, like rose, and courtesans and women of the demi-monde would choose sensual, earthy smells like musk or jasmine. Coco Chanel wanted to create a scent as liberating as her clothes: simple, elegant and wearable. The final product is a mixture of jasmine, rose, sandalwood and vanilla, suitable for the youthful, freedom-loving flapper.
Considered to be the first artificial perfume – in the sense that it was specifically made to smell artificial, using synthetic compounds rather than essential oils –, Chanel No. 5 forever changed the way the world relates to perfume, and rebirthed the whole industry into one of the most glamorised and globalized to this day. Chanel herself stated that “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future”.
With the formula compounded by French-Russian chemist and perfumer Ernest Beaux, the design was essential for the perfume’s allure, promoting the same clean-cut simplicity as her fashion. Her perfume started an entire cult and is still one of the most beloved and best-selling fragrances worldwide. Many celebrities were enchanted by it – in a famous, or rather infamous, interview in the 50s, Marilyn Monroe said: “What do I wear to bed? Why, Chanel No. 5 of course”.
Regardless of how much one does or does not fancy Chanel, the person, or Chanel, the brand, the impact and influence of them both are indisputable – they are all around us. We are as accustomed to seeing women wear pants and to everybody wearing perfume as we are to turning on the light at night or taking a cab, often forgetting that all these actions were revolutionary innovations at their time.
Learning our lesson on simplicity, an extended and condescending conclusion would not be appropriate for Chanel. As such, this article is to end elegantly, with one final cited reflection from one of the most quoted people on Earth: “The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud”.
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Once Upon a Time… 2013. [video] Directed by K. Lagerfeld. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0o9dTCl0hkY.
The Business of Fashion. 2020. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971). [online] Available at: https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/education/gabrielle-coco-chanel-1883-1971.
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