I admire a rebel with a cause and Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was a woman whose legacy is undeniable. This style icon, fashion influencer and astute businesswoman was raised in a convent, taught to sew by nuns and started her career in fashion by selling hats from her Paris boutique.
Before Chanel ‘BC’ the concept that fashion for women could also be comfortable didn’t exist. Her designs inspired women to discard their uncomfortable, restrictive clothing such as petticoats and corsets and replace them with something simple, more comfortable whilst still being stylish. She redefined how women dressed and her influence is still felt today.
- She was the first designer to take inspiration from menswear and use it to make women’s clothing more functional. Chanel enjoyed wearing trousers and often borrowing her boyfriend’s suits; in an era where woman in high society wore only skirts and dresses this was a bold move. Originally she designed trousers for women to wear as a practical garment whilst playing sports or doing other physical activities but soon they became a fashion choice.
- ‘BC’ black was worn by servants or those in mourning. She saw the colour through a different lens, viewing it as modern, simple, elegant and a colour that could be worn every day. The story goes that an accident with a gas burner caused her white dress to be covered in soot and so the seed of an idea was planted. The ‘little black dress’ as we now lovingly refer to it, is one of today’s fashion staples.
- Chanel accessorised the black dress with long strands of fake pearls and gemstone necklaces. ‘BC’ costume jewellery was only worn by those who couldn’t afford the real thing but when she added them to her collection she turned it into a trend enabling everyone to wear the bling.
- Inspired by the classic aethetic of the blue and cream stripes that she spotted French Sailors wearing whilst she was on holiday, Chanel added stripes to her 1917 nautical collection. The Breton has been a fashion staple worn by fashion influencers ever since.
- Chanel was pioneering in the use of jersey in her designs. ‘BC’ it was an undesirable fabric used only in the production of men’s underwear. Fabric rations meant that jersey was one of the only available materials for commercial use and the shrewd Chanel spotted the potential in this functional and underrated fabric.
- The iconic Chanel two-piece suit was designed by taking elements from men’s clothing and adding her own interpretation of femininity. The slim fitting skirt and collarless jacket was made with tweed fabric, it was trimmed with braid and finished with gold buttons. Tweed was not a luxurious textile so her use of it was considered unusual. But once again Chanel saw potential where no one else had. She produced it in new colours and textures and her instinct for knowing what would work for women’s clothing meant that this underutilized fabric was a hit. The Chanel suit became the status symbol of the generation representing wealth, class and taste as it still does today.
- In 1959 Coco Chanel introduced the two-tone pump in beige with a contrasting toe cap. This classic shoe is still in production by Chanel, has had many reinventions and it’s universally flattering design has been copied by virtually every shoe store on the planet. It is still one of the most elegant footwear choices for stylish women across the world.
- We couldn’t talk about Mademoiselle Coco without mentioning Chanel No 5, which remains the top selling perfume in the world. ‘BC’ all perfume made with essential oils and was therefore floral scented. Chanel knew that she wanted to create a totally modern and unique fragrance for her customers. After months in the laboratory her perfumer presented her with 10 numbered samples, she picked her favourite, sample number 5 and the rest is history. It was the first man-made perfume using synthetic ingredients and it changed the landscape of perfume forever.
- It was Coco Chanel who set the trend for tanned skin. In the early 1920s when she accidentally burnt whilst on holiday , her bronzed glow was greatly admired on her return and became all the rage.
- Chanel found the way upper class women had to carry their purses in their hands impractical. Inspired by the straps found on soldiers bags, her fresh approach to handbag design was to introduce a shoulder strap to enable women to carry their bag on their shoulders. Until then this wasn’t seen as acceptable but once again Chanel lead the way and everyone else followed.
Throughout Coco Chanel’s entire designing life she insisted on simplicity, perfection of workmanship and quality of materials. She was original, modern and innovative. Her self-belief allowed her to follow her intuition, ignore convention and do her own thing. Her groundbreaking designs may not be as impactful as they were nearly 100 years ago but her gift to women’s fashion can never been underestimated.