Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (August 19 1883 – January 10 1971)
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel would have turned 135 today. But why are we still raising a glass to her after all those years? Because she changed everything. While it sounds radical, she changed a lot more than you realize. Break out your pearls and red lipstick, douse yourself in Chanel No. 5, and grab your quilted 2.55 handbag, this post is dedicated to one of the most influential fashion forces who ever lived.
Cheers to you, Coco!
Chanel went from poor orphan to owner of the world’s largest fashion empire through a combination of talent, tenaciousness, and intuitive understanding of marketing and design. Chanel began her career as a milliner in 1909 and opened her first shop in 1910 in Paris. By 1919, Chanel had established a couture house at 31 Rue Cambon in Paris.
But Chanel did a lot more than change the way women dress. She invented a new way of being, and women clamoured for a piece of the fantasy that Chanel created. Wearing Chanel lets a woman take on the persona of Chanel herself; a strong, powerful woman who knows exactly what she wants and who she is.
Her design aesthetic redefined the fashionable woman for the post-World War I era: the Chanel trademark was a look of youthful ease, liberated confidence, and hard work. She popularized the sporty, casual chic as the new feminine standard of style.
Today, Coco Chanel is synonymous with luxury, wealth, and elegance. Many items we consider to be “wardrobe staples” were actually Chanel designs: skirt suits, trousers, cardigan sweaters, jersey knits, t-shirts, flat shoes, and the little black dress. The uniform Chanel created is instantly recognizable: the boucle, collarless skirt suit; the cap-toe pumps; the quilted bag; the piles of pearls; the straw boater hat. Fashion and femininity were never the same again after Coco’s life.
Not only did Chanel free women from boring and binding clothes, but she helped inspire the menswear trend, borrowed clothes traditionally worn by sailors and fishermen, debuted the Little Black Dress on the cover of the third-ever issue of Playboy, and created one of the most iconic handbags ever.
16 Coco Chanel Designs That Changed The World Forever
#1 The Death Of The Corset
One of Chanel’s most important legacies was the death to the corseted female silhouette.
In the mid-1910s, Chanel created a new, freeing style that allowed women to dress and undress quickly and alone. She did away with the corset and began designing short dresses, trousers, and tops. Women no longer needed a second set of hands from a husband or a servant to hook buttons, lace a corset, and they didn’t need to dress in heavy fabric that enveloped the entire body.
Chanel loved to dress like a tomboy (garçon); striped suits, schoolboy sports clothes, and blazers with just a touch of femininity. The designs she created were androgynous and simple; a strong departure from the turn-of-the-century corset and gowns-for-day-time look that was in vogue at the time.
Chanel was the first to design clothes that men traditionally wore to make them suitable for women.
#2 Pants For Women
Yes, pants. It’s hard to believe now, but just 80 years ago, that was a concept reserved strictly for the patriarchy. Then along came Coco Chanel, who loved to smash gender roles way before it was a thing. One afternoon, she realized there was no comfortable way to ride a horse while wearing a long skirt, so she literally took the pants off a male rider and tailored them to fit her frame. Feminism!
After that afternoon, Chanel declared that women should enjoy the same freedoms as men, and that corsets and skirts were holding them back, so she gave the idea some legs and custom-tailored pants for all of her friends.
“I gave women a sense of freedom,” Chanel once said. “I gave them back their bodies: bodies that were drenched in sweat, due to fashion’s finery, lace, corsets, underclothes, padding.”
At the time, people were appalled because they thought it was unladylike to wear pants — Chanel proved otherwise. Although during the war women often had to wear trousers when working in traditionally male jobs, Chanel played a huge part in accelerating their popularity as a fashion item.
#3 The Little Black Dress
Whether it’s work, a cocktail party or a date — a little black dress is the go-to. We have Coco Chanel to thank for that.
Around 1920, Chanel started using black in her garments, a color traditionally associated with servants’ uniforms or mourning. She announced that loud, theatrical colors made her ill and the Little Black Dress was born. In 1926, a year after the death of Boy Capel (the love of her life), Chanel created an entire series of simple black dresses — in wool, silk, chiffon, and with fringe or sequined beading. From her mourning, we got the LBD.
That year, American Vogue published a photo of a short black dress made by Chanel and called it “Chanel’s Ford.” Like the Model T, it was simple and accessible for women of all social classes. It was meant to be versatile, affordable, accessible, and neutral, so it would appeal to the widest market possible. Vogue declared it would become, “a uniform for all women of taste.” Almost 85 years later, its power endures. Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s current creative director, said, “one is never over-dressed or underdressed in a little black dress.
Chanel’s very first triumph in clothing was the innovative use of jersey fabric, a machine knit material manufactured for her by the firm Rodier.
Chanel was the first designer to use jersey in women’s clothing, which at the time was an industrial fabric, usually reserved for men’s underwear. Jersey was seen as a “lower class” fabric; it shredded easily, puckered and showed mistakes, but Chanel loved a challenge.
So, why jersey? The war had caused a shortage of other materials, and at the time, it was an affordable option to buy in bulk. The timing was right for it too; women were desiring more simple and practical clothes. Simple, practical and comfortable, her jersey suits and chemise dresses hung loose and straight, ideal for practicality and free movement.
Jersey fabric was the complete antithesis of what women’s clothing had previously been: flashy, excessive and based around an uncomfortable corset. Chanel created soft jersey fabric and loose silhouettes for an uncorseted body; they were simple and functional. One of Chanel’s early wool jersey designs consisted of a cardigan jacket, pleated skirt, paired with a low-belted pullover top.
With jersey, she also designed two of the most popular wardrobe staples for women: the t-shirt and the cardigan.
With Chanel’s foray into jersey, she created a simple, easy to wear garment that could be worn with her custom, tailored trousers. While the exact history behind the invention of the t-shirt is unknown, we know that Chanel made jersey t-shirts popular for women in the early 1910s after she saw them on sailors in the French Riviera.
Chanel paved the way for fashion today: T-shirts are available today in different designs, fabrics, and styles including crew-neck and V-neck shirts and they are among the most worn garments of clothing used today, and we can thank Chanel for that.
#6 Striped Shirts
After a trip to the French Riviera, Coco Chanel got so inspired by the sailors’ uniforms that she included the stripes into her 1914 fashion collection. The striped marinière (“sailor”) top liberated the female from the period’s sartorial constraints. The original design was released in striped jersey in black/white or navy/white, with jersey covered buttons and taffeta button holes at the shoulders. Since then, the striped Breton top has become one of the most stylish and most popular fashion items in the world.
#7 Cardigan Sweaters
In the 1920s, Coco Chanel is credited with popularizing cardigans for women because of how tight-necked men’s sweaters messed up her hair when she pulled them over her head. Chanel felt strongly that women should be able to skip from the ski slopes to lunch to the opera in the same outfit: the cardigan fulfilled that.
Mademoiselle made the first cardigan prototype herself, taking scissors to an old sweater. ” I cut an old sweater. … I sewed a ribbon [around the collar]. Everyone went crazy, [saying] ‘Where did you get that?’ ” Chanel later recalled.
Chanel loved the design and later softened the material to jersey, then lengthened it to be worn over a matching skirt. It took a few more decades for the cardigan to catch on in the United States; by the late 1950s, American women were tired of being swathed in cumbersome layers and were ready for a relaxed waist and the fit of the modern silhouette.
Chanel’s cardigans appealed to Americans’ sense of egalitarianism and universal appeal: a casual cardigan suit that anyone could wear; in theory, anyway, because Chanel’s original cardigans were priced for the elite.
Today, cardigan sweaters have been remixed and redesigned in different materials, styles, and embellishments.
#8 Shoulder Bags
Before Coco released her Chanel 2.55 bag in February 1955, women carried their bags in their hands or under their arms. Always an innovator, Coco Chanel created a bag that she needed herself: an accessory that freed up the hands. She took her quilted handbag and added a longer chain strap so the bag could be carried on her shoulder. Not only did this design change the course of fashion history, but for the first time, it was acceptable for women to carry a bag on their shoulders. The Chanel shoulder bag was born.
Today, women everywhere carry shoulder bags and crossbody bags. Without Chanel’s creativity and innovation, we would still be carrying around clutches and pocket books everywhere.
#9 The Tweed Chanel Suit
Few things are more iconic in women’s fashion than the Chanel Tweed Suit. You know the look: a collarless, boxy wool jacket with braided trim, fitted sleeves, and metallic embellished buttons with a slimline skirt. The designer was one of the first to borrow from menswear for women’s attire when she created her iconic suits; it was just feminine enough.
One of the most classic pieces in fashion history, first designed by Coco Chanel in the 1950s, featured a collarless, boxy tweed jacket that fit like Chanel’s popular cardigan, made of solid or tweed fabric, trimmed in braided details, gold buttons, patch pockets, and a gold-colored chain sewn into the hem, ensuring it hung properly from the shoulders. Paired with a slim skirt, it became a status symbol for a new generation. The Chanel suit was the perfect choice for the post-war woman who was trying to build a career in the male-dominated workplace.
Jaqueline Kennedy wore her Chanel pink suit several times during JFK’s presidency and during his assassination. The suit is the most referenced and revisited of all the items in her closet and became her trademark. All over the world, the Chanel tweed suit still remains a popular outfit today.
#10 Artificial-Smelling Perfume
To this day, Chanel’s first fragrance, Chanel Number 5, remains as one of the most iconic fragrances of all time. To wear Chanel Number 5 is to wear Chanel herself and take on a bit of her essence and mythic ethos.
Chanel wanted to invent the most expensive perfume in the world. She traveled to Grasse, then considered to be the perfume capital of the world, in the South of France, to meet with a perfumer, Ernest Beaux. Beaux asked Coco to put the Chanel brand his perfume. She picked the fifth sample he had, and Chanel No. 5 was born. It was a perfume to evoke a new century and a new, modern women.
Prior to 1921, perfumes were based on floral, herbal or animal-derived spells like roses or lilies of the valley. In 1921, Chanel No. 5 was launched, as the first perfume unnatural ingredients, unlike the standard perfumes of the day, which were created with floral components. A woman should smell like a woman, not a rose, Coco said.
#11 Costume Jewelry
The pioneer of faux bling? Coco Chanel.
After being gifted a strand of Romanov pearls, Coco promptly had oversized copies of faux pearls made and began looping long garlands of them around her neck (sometimes with the real pearls). Instead of looking cheap, long garlands of faux beads looked fresh when juxtaposed with her casual wear. Layers of imitation pearls soon became one of the most iconic elements of the Coco Chanel look and lexicon.
Coco thought that if women could buy costume jewelry that was more affordable than diamonds and real gemstones, they would accessorize every outfit they could. She was right.
When Chanel added fake large pearls and glittering gemstones to Parisian elite, the trend really began to take off. When styling women, Chanel often combined heaps of costume jewelry with her minimalist clothes for the casually elegant look she was known for.
The jewelry was made from chains, beads, and glass that were meant to be worn with casual daytime sportswear. Costume jewelry was revolutionary in an era when fine jewelry was all women had. Today, women adorn themselves in casual jewelry everyday.
“One does not wear jewelry to appear rich, one wears it to be adorned.” — Coco Chanel
#12 Beige and Black Cap-Toe Pumps
In 1957, Chanel released the very first beige and black cap-toe slingback pumps.
In Chanel’s effort to create a complete uniform for women, she wanted to create something better than a simple heel that could mingle with every look, from morning to night and for every occasion, so she introduced a two-tone shoe in beige and black. “The new Cinderella slipper”, as the press called it, immediately became another Chanel signature loved by high society elites and celebrities everywhere.
The innovative design wasn’t purely just for visual aesthetics: the beige was used to lengthen the leg while the black toe cap was used to shorten the foot and to protect the tip from wear and tear. The design incorporated a slingback, which provided great freedom of movement and a 5cm heel for a slight lift in posture.
Through the 60s, the toe cap changed into black satin, silver leather, was rounded or more pointed, and eventually finished with a small grosgrain bow and an embroidered CC logo.
Today, the Chanel two-tone cap toe shoe has gone through dozens of makeovers, which include high heels, thigh-high boots, sneakers and espadrilles. Chanel’s influence is still seen on our feet today.
#13 Swim Caps
Originally created in the 1920s as a costume for the Ballets Russes, Chanel designed a head-hugging rubber swim cap, designed to permit women to move easily in the water.
#14 Printed Silk Lining In Jackets
Coco was obsessed with the idea of “hidden luxury;” lavishly beautiful inside, but completely undetectable on the outside. In 1924, Chanel started sewing glossy, printed silk linings into basic wool jackets. From the outside, they were simple and classic; inside they were vibrant and luxurious and more valuable than the exterior.
#15 The Louis Vuitton Alma Bag
Did you know one of Louis Vuitton’s most popular day bags was actually designed for Coco Chanel? Before Chanel started designing her own handbags, Chanel custom ordered a Louis Vuitton Alma bag in 1925 to be able to carry it in her hands. The house of Louis Vuitton designed a hand-held version of one of their luggage pieces at the request of madame Gabrielle Chanel, who gave her permission to manufacture the bag for the general public in the 1930s. Without her, we wouldn’t have the Alma bag!
Chanel made such an impact on fashion that even her skin became fashionable. This is one of the more surprising contributions: Chanel made suntans not only fashionable and acceptable, but a symbol denoting a life of privilege and leisure. Historically, upper-class white women had cherished their milky white skin as a sure sign of aristocracy: they weren’t required to spend all day doing manual, outdoor labor.
But when Chanel’s skin turned bronze while on an extended trip sailing in the French Riviera, she unwittingly sparked a craze for sunbathing amongst her elite entourage in the south of France. When women came into her boutique, they were amazed how bright her teeth looked and that she looked like she was bursting with life.
By the mid-1920s, women could be seen lounging on the beach without a hat to shield them from the sun’s rays. In 1924, the Maison Chanel introduced the very first tanning lotion for women, L’Huile Tan. Later, when skin cancer was discovered, Chanel added SPF to the lotion.
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel is an icon. She has left quite a legacy on the world — not only for her fashion and designs, but the way she lived her life.
Thank you for changing the world, Coco Chanel. We celebrate you every day. Happy Birthday.
Garelick, Rhonda K. Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History. Random House, 2015.