When you think of high-end designer handbags, what designer comes to mind? For many women, it’s Chanel. This week we’re considering the background, fashion firsts, and favorite quotes of fashion designer icon, Coco Chanel. There’s more to Coco Chanel than just designer handbags.
Coco Chanel was born in 1883. Her given name was Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel. Coco’s mother died of tuberculosis when she was a child. Her father placed her in an orphanage. One skill that she learned from the nuns in the orphanage was how to sew. And as they say, the rest is history.
This icon of fashion opened her first business in Paris at age 27, selling hats. She went on to garment design. She used affordable jersey knit fabrics to make comfortable dresses that didn’t require restrictive under garments. Her use of trousers for modesty sake made the wearing of them by women more acceptable.
Her lengthy fashion design history had an extensive WW2 gap. When she returned to the fashion world in the 1950’s there were doubts as to her future success; but those doubts ended quickly. Her classic design of a braid-trimmed cardigan with skirt set became a fashion favorite. And shoppers around the world fell in love with everything Coco Chanel.
Her signature pieces included Chanel No.5 perfume, the classic black suit, the little black dress, and of course the iconic 2.55 handbag. The Coco Chanel name in fashion became synonymous with simplistic yet sophisticated styles, and sheer elegance.
Fashion Firsts by Coco Chanel (aka things to thank Coco for):
1. Designing clothing that was comfortable and didn’t require corsets (seriously!). When Chanel began her fashion designing career in the early 1900’s, women were still wearing restrictive corsets. Her use of the inexpensive jersey knit fabrics was the game changer. This type of fabric draped beautifully. It was the perfect fabric for her simplistic dress designs, sans corsets.
2. She made the concept of women wearing trousers acceptable. She reconstructed men’s trousers for herself to wear while riding horseback. She also chose to wear men’s sailor trousers at the seaside for the sake of modesty. Regarding trousers, she once said, "I gave women a sense of freedom. I gave them back their bodies: bodies that were drenched in sweat, due to fashion's finery, lace, corsets, underclothes, padding."
3. Costume Jewelry. Yes, you read that right. While Coco Chanel loved wearing pearls, she also designed costume jewelry to be worn with her casual daytime ensembles. She reasoned that women would be glad to buy affordable jewelry that could be worn with every outfit that they had. And she was right!
4. The Shoulder Handbag. In the mid 1950’s, Chanel introduced the now famous 2.55 Chanel Shoulder Bag. Up until this point, the norm was for a woman to carry her purse in her hands. Was Chanel’s new handbag concept the fashion world’s original hands-free device? Perhaps. While there were shoulder bags used by postal carriers, couriers, and the military, the concept of a shoulder bag worn everyday by a woman was singularly unique. Chanel took the service-geared shoulder handbag and made it glamorous. The sleek quilted leather handbag with the signature gold chain strap was simplistically beautiful. Worn on the shoulder, the wearer’s hands were free. Women went from hands occupied by holding a handbag to hands-free with a shoulder handbag. We have no concept of how incredibly freeing that would have been.
5. The Little Black Dress. It’s at the top of everyone’s list of wardrobe staples. From the perfect date dress, to formal events, to cruise wear, to celebratory galas, the LBD fits the bill. And Coco Chanel is credited with the invention of the LBD. According to the Mental Floss article entitled: 15 Things You Didn't Know About Coco Chanel, “She published a photo of a short black dress in a 1926 issue of Vogue, calling it "Chanel's Ford," because, 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 sort of uniform for all women of taste."” And so, it is. Summer or winter, daytime or evening, if there’s an event, you can almost always reach for that little black dress and step out in perfect style.