Among the key designers who made a bold and lasting impression on women’s fashion in the twentieth century, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883–1971) deserves special recognition. Born in Saumur, in the Loire Valley of France, Chanel survived an impoverished childhood and strict convent education. The difficulties of her early life inspired her to pursue a radically different lifestyle, first on the stage, where she acquired the nickname “Coco,” and then as a milliner.
With the help of one of the male admirers who would provide key financial assistance and social connections over the course of her career, Chanel opened her first shop in Paris in 1913, followed by another in the resort town of Deauville. Selling hats and a limited line of garments, Chanel’s shops developed a dedicated clientele who quickly made her practical sportswear a great success. Much of Chanel’s clothing was made of jersey, a choice of fabric both unusual and inspired. Until the designer began to work with it, jersey was more commonly used for men’s underwear. With her financial situation precarious in the early years of her design career, Chanel purchased jersey primarily for its low cost. The qualities of the fabric, however, ensured that the designer would continue to use it long after her business became profitable. The fabric draped well and suited Chanel’s designs, which were simple, practical, and often inspired by men’s wear, especially the uniforms prevalent when World War I broke out in 1914.
As her fashion-conscious customers fled Paris at the beginning of the war, Chanel’s boutiques in Deauville and Biarritz flourished. Chanel’s uncluttered styles, with their boxy lines and shortened skirts, allowed women to leave their corsets behind and freed them for the practical activities made necessary by the war. Elements of these early designs became hallmarks of the Chanel look. Chanel took great pride as a woman in designing for other women, and by 1919, at the age of thirty-two, she enjoyed huge success, with clients around the world. Soon after, she relocated her couture house in Paris to 31 Rue Cambon, which remains the center of operations for the House of Chanel today.
Chanel’s own lifestyle fueled her ideas of how modern women everywhere should look, act, and dress. Her own slim boyish figure and cropped hair became an ideal, as did her tanned skin, active lifestyle, and financial independence. Throughout her career, Chanel succeeded in packaging and marketing her own personal attitudes and style, making her a key arbiter of women’s taste throughout the twentieth century.
The designer’s passionate interests inspired her fashions. Her apartment and her clothing followed her favorite color palette, shades of beige, black, and white. Elements from her art collection and theatrical interests likewise provided themes for her collections. When Chanel attended a masquerade ball dressed as a figure from a Watteau painting, she later reworked the costume into a woman’s suit. She hired Russian émigrés from her circle of friends to work in her embroidery workshop, creating designs to her exacting specifications. Known for a relentless drive for perfection, whether in design or fit, and strong opinions in all matters of taste, Chanel backed her clothing with the authority of her personal conviction.
In 1921, to complement her suits, Coco Chanel commissioned perfumer Ernest Beaux to create a perfume for the House of Chanel, and he produced several échantillons, including the perfume No.5, named after the number of the sample Chanel liked best. Originally, a flaçon of No. 5 de Chanel was given as a gift to her regular clients. The perfume’s popularity prompted her to begin selling it in 1922. No. 5 quickly became Chanel’s signature fragrance. The success of Chanel No. 5 encouraged her to expand perfume sales beyond France and Europe and to develop other perfume houses — for which she required capital, acumen and commercial access to North America. To that end, the businessman Théophile Bader (founder of Galeries Lafayette) introduced her to venture capitalist Pierre Wertheimer. They established the Parfums Chanel company, a perfume house of which Wertheimer owned 70 per cent, Bader 20 per cent and Chanel 10 per cent. The designer continued to own the Chanel fashion house. In 1924 Chanel hired attorney René de Chambrun to renegotiate the partnership but the original deal remained intact.
Chanel continued to create successful looks for women through the 1920′s and ’30s. In 1926, American Vogue likened Chanel’s “little black dress” to the Ford, alluding to its almost universal popularity as a fashion basic. In fact, the concept of the dress suitable for day and evening did become both a staple for Chanel throughout subsequent seasons and a classic piece of twentieth-century women’s wear. The designer also used colorful feminine printed chiffons in her daywear designs. Evening ensembles followed the long slim line for which the designer was known, but also incorporated tulle, lace, and decorative elements that soften and romanticize the overall look of the garment.
Despite her great success, Chanel closed the doors of her salon in 1939, when France declared war on Germany. Other couturiers left the country, but Chanel endured the war in Paris, her future uncertain. Following the end of the hostilities and resolution of some personal difficulties, Chanel found she could not idly stand by and observe the early success of Christian Dior, whose “New Look” prevailed in the postwar period. While many admired Dior’s celebration of femininity, with full skirts and nipped-in waists, Chanel felt his designs were neither modern nor suitable for the liberated women who had survived another war by taking on active roles in society. Just as she had following World War I, Chanel set out to rescue and reinvigorate women’s fashion.
The designer faced challenges in this endeavor: securing finances, assembling a new staff, seeking out new fabrics, competing at age seventy against a new generation of designers. Chanel’s comeback collection of couture debuted in 1953. Although it was not a critical success, the designer persevered. Within three seasons, Chanel was enjoying newfound respect. She updated her classic looks, reworking the classic tweed designs until wealthy women and celebrities returned to the showroom in droves. The Chanel suit became a status symbol for a new generation, made of solid or tweed fabric, with its slim skirt and collarless jacket trimmed in braid, gold buttons, patch pockets, and—sewn into the hem—a gold-colored chain ensuring it hung properly from the shoulders. Chanel also reintroduced her handbags, jewelry, and shoes with great success in subsequent seasons.
Following Chanel’s death in 1971, several of her assistants designed the couture and ready-to-wear lines until Karl Lagerfeld (born 1933) took over the haute couture design in 1983 and ready-to-wear in 1984. Lagerfeld, like Chanel at the time of her comeback, looked to past designs for the secret to his success. His designs incorporated signature Chanel details, tweed fabrics, colors, gold chains, quilt-stitched leather, and the linked “CC” logo. In later collections, Lagerfeld became more irreverent, deconstructing some of the ladylike polish of Chanel’s 1960s looks. Playing with the fact that Chanel’s favorite jersey fabric had been used for men’s underwear at the turn of the twentieth century, Lagerfeld even incorporated men’s T-shirts and briefs into his designs . Nonetheless, Lagerfeld’s ability to continuously mine the Chanel archive for inspiration testifies to the importance of Gabrielle Chanel’s contributions to women’s fashion in the twentieth century.
Chanel S.A. is a privately held company owned by Alain Wertheimer and Gerard Wertheimer, grandsons of Pierre Wertheimer, co-founder of the Chanel business.