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Coco Chanel


She was shrewd, chic and on the cutting edge. The clothes she created changed the way women looked and how they looked at themselves

By INGRID SISCHY for Time Magazine


Coco Chanel wasn't just ahead of her time. She was ahead of herself. If one looks at the work of contemporary fashion designers as different from one another as Tom Ford, Helmut Lang, Miuccia Prada, Jil Sander and Donatella Versace, one sees that many of their strategies echo what Chanel once did. The way, 75 years ago, she mixed up the vocabulary of male and female clothes and created fashion that offered the wearer a feeling of hidden luxury rather than ostentation are just two examples of how her taste and sense of style overlap with today's fashion.

Chanel would not have defined herself as a feminist — in fact, she consistently spoke of femininity rather than of feminism — yet her work is unquestionably part of the liberation of women. She threw out a life jacket, as it were, to women not once but twice, during two distinct periods decades apart: the 1920s and the '50s. She not only appropriated styles, fabrics and articles of clothing that were worn by men but also, beginning with how she dressed herself, appropriated sports clothes as part of the language of fashion. One can see how her style evolved out of necessity and defiance. She couldn't afford the fashionable clothes of the period — so she rejected them and made her own, using, say, the sports jackets and ties that were everyday male attire around the racetrack, where she was climbing her first social ladders.

It's not by accident that she became associated with the modern movement that included Diaghilev, Picasso, Stravinsky and Cocteau. Like these artistic protagonists, she was determined to break the old formulas and invent a way of expressing herself. Cocteau once said of her that "she has, by a kind of miracle, worked in fashion according to rules that would seem to have value only for painters, musicians, poets."

By the late '60s, Chanel had become part of what she once rebelled against and hated — the Establishment. But if one looks at documentary footage of her from that period, one can still feel the spit and vinegar of the fiery peasant woman who began her fashion revolution against society by aiming at the head, with hats. Her boyish "flapper" creations were in stark contrast to the Belle Epoque millinery that was in vogue at the time, and about which she asked, "How can a brain function under those things?" Something that Chanel can never be accused of is not using her brain. Her sharp mind is apparent in everything she did, from her savvy use of logos to her deep understanding of the power of personality and packaging, even the importance of being copied. And she was always quotable: "Fashion is not simply a matter of clothes. Fashion is in the air, born upon the wind. One intuits it. It is in the sky and on the road."

It is fitting, somehow, that Chanel was often photographed holding a cigarette or standing in front of her famous Art Deco wall of mirrors. Fashion tends to involve a good dose of smoke and mirrors, so it should come as no surprise that Gabrielle Chanel's version of her life involved a multitude of lies, inventions, cover-ups and revisions. But as Prada said to me: "She was really a genius. It's hard to pin down exactly why, but it has something to do with her wanting to be different and wanting to be independent."

Certainly her life was unpredictable. Even her death — in 1971, at the age of 87 in her private quarters at the Ritz Hotel — was a plush ending that probably would not have been predicted for Chanel by the nuns in the Aubazine orphanage, where she spent time as a ward of the state after her mother died and her father ran off. No doubt the sisters at the convent in Moulins, who took her in when she was 17, raised their eyebrows when the young woman left the seamstress job they had helped her get to try for a career as a cabaret singer. This stint as a performer — she was apparently charming but no Piaf — led her to take up with the local swells and become the backup mistress of Etienne Balsan, a playboy who would finance her move to Paris and the opening of her first hat business. That arrangement gave way to a bigger and better deal when she moved on to his friend, Arthur ("Boy") Capel, who is said to have been the love of her life and who backed her expansion from hats to clothes and from Paris to the coastal resorts of Deauville and Biarritz. One of her first successes was the loose-fitting sweater, which she belted and teamed with a skirt. These early victories were similar to the clothes she had been making for herself — women's clothes made out of Everyman materials such as jersey, usually associated with men's undergarments.

Throughout the '20s, Chanel's social, sexual and professional progress continued, and her eminence grew to the status of legend. By the early '30s she'd been courted by Hollywood, gone and come back. She had almost married one of the richest men in Europe, the Duke of Westminster; when she didn't, her explanation was, "There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel." In fact, there were many Coco Chanels, just as her work had many phases and many styles, including Gypsy skirts, over-the-top fake jewelry and glittering evening wear — made of crystal and jet beads laid over black and white georgette crepe — not just the plainer jersey suits and "little black dresses" that made her famous. But probably the single element that most ensured Chanel's being remembered, even when it would have been easier to write her off, is not a piece of clothing but a form of liquid gold — Chanel No. 5, in its Art Deco bottle, which was launched in 1923. It was the first perfume to bear a designer's name.

One could say perfume helped keep Chanel's name pretty throughout the period when her reputation got ugly: World War II. This is when her anti-Semitism, homophobia (even though she herself dabbled in bisexuality) and other base inclinations emerged. She responded to the war by shutting down her fashion business and hooking up with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a Nazi officer whose favors included permission to reside in her beloved Ritz Hotel. Years later, in 1954, when she decided to make a comeback, her name still had "disgraced" attached to it.

Depending on the source, Chanel's return to the fashion world has been variously attributed to falling perfume sales, disgust at what she was seeing in the fashion of the day or simple boredom. All these explanations seem plausible, and so does Karl Lagerfeld's theory of why, this time around, the Chanel suit met such phenomenal success. Lagerfeld — who designs Chanel today and who has turned the company into an even bigger, more tuned-in business than it was before — points out, "By the '50s she had the benefit of distance, and so could truly distill the Chanel look. Time and culture had caught up with her." In Europe, her return to fashion was deemed an utter flop at first, but Americans couldn't buy her suits fast enough. Yet again Chanel had put herself into the yolk of the zeitgeist. By the time Katharine Hepburn played her on Broadway in 1969, Chanel had achieved first-name recognition and was simply Coco.


Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883-1971) was noted for her free-flowing, loose-fitting designs for women's clothing, first introduced in 1919, and again in 1954.

In 1919 French designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel released women from the tight corsets of the era and introduced them to comfortable jersey clothing. In 1954, after fifteen years of retirement and just six months before her seventy-first birthday, she made a comeback and freed women once again from highly structured, constricting designs - this time the clothing of the "New Look." Critics were lukewarm, but women, particularly American women, loved her casual, softly shaped clothes and snapped them up. These designs ushered in a new relaxation in fashion that continues today.

Early Years

Little is known of Chanel's early years except that she was orphaned as a young child. She started in fashion in 1910, making hats in Paris. Chanel opened her first dress shop in Paris in 1914 and closed it in 1939 at the onset of World War II. But in the period between the world wars she revolutionized women's fashion with her straight, simple, uncorseted, and, above all, comfortable "Chanel Look." She also popularized short hair for women in the 1920s and introduced shorter skirts. She created her famous Chanel No. 5 perfume in 1922.

Later Years

In 1954 Chanel said her competitive spirit was aroused because Parisian high fashion had been taken over by men. "There are too many men in this business," she told a magazine interviewer in May 1954, "and they don't know how to make clothes for women. All this fantastic pinching and puffing. How can a woman wear a dress that's cut so she can't lift up her arm to pick up a telephone?" She had a knack for knowing what women wanted, and women responded enthusiastically. In the 1950s her famous Chanel suit - a collarless, braid-trimmed cardigan jacket and slim, graceful skirt - was an enormous hit. She also popularized pea jackets and bell-bottom trousers plus magnificent jewelry worn with sportswear.

In 1969 Coco Chanel's life was the basis for Coco, a Broadway musical starring Katharine Hepburn. Chanel died in 1971, working to the end on a new collection.


A woman of ambition and determination, Gabrielle Chanel, nicknamed "Coco," rose from humble beginnings and an unhappy childhood to become one of the 20th century's most prominent couturiers, prevailing for nearly half a century. In contrast to the opulent elegance of the belle époque, Chanel's designs were based on simplicity and elegance. She introduced relaxed dressing, expressing the aspirations of the day's woman, replacing impractical clothing with functional styling.

Chanel's early years tended to be vague in detail, being full of inaccuracies and contradictions, due to her deliberate concealment of her deprived childhood. It is generally accepted that Chanel gained some dressmaking and millinery experience prior to working in a hat shop in Deauville, France. Using her skills as a milliner she opened shops in Paris, Deauville, and Biarritz with the financial assistance of a backer. Chanel was an astute businesswoman and skillful publicist, quickly expanding her work to include skirts, jerseys in stockinette jersey, and accessories.

Recognized as the designer of the 1920s, Chanel initiated an era of casual dressing, appropriate to the occasion, for relaxed outdoor clothing created to be worn in comfort and without constricting corsets, liberating women with loosely fitting garments. Her style was of uncluttered simplicity, incorporating practical details.

In 1916 Chanel introduced jersey, a soft elasticated knit previously only used for undergarments, as the new fashion fabric. Wool jersey produced softer, lighter clothing with uncluttered fluid lines. She made simple jersey dresses in navy and grey, cut to flatter the figure rather than to emphasize and distort the natural body shape. The demand for her new nonconformist designs by the wealthy was so great and the use of jersey so successful Chanel extended her range, creating her own jersey fabric designs, which were manufactured by Rodier.

Highly original in her concept of design, Chanel ceaselessly borrowed ideas from the male wardrobe, combining masculine tailoring with women's clothing. Her suits were precise but remain untailored, with flowing lines, retaining considerable individuality and simple elegance. Riding breeches, wide-legged trousers, blazers, and sweaters were all taken and adapted. A major force in introducing and establishing common sense and understated simplicity into womenswear, Chanel's coordination of the cardigan, worn with a classic straight skirt, became a standard combination of wearable separates.

Chanel produced her cardigans in tweed and jersey fabrics, initiating the perennially popular "Chanel suit," which usually consisted of two or three pieces: a cardigan-style jacket, weighted with her trademark gilt chain stitched around the inside hem, a simple easy-to-wear skirt, worn with a blouse (with blouse fabric coordinated with the jacket lining). Her work offered comfort and streamlined simplicity, creating clothes for the modern woman, whom she epitomized herself. The key to her design philosophy was construction, producing traditional classics outliving each season's new fashion trends and apparel. While other designers presented new looks for each new season, Chanel adapted the refined detailing and style lines.

Her colors were predominantly grey, navy, and beige, incorporating highlights of a richer and broader palette. Chanel introduced the ever popular "little black dress,"created for daywear, eveningwear, and cocktail dressing which became a firm fixture in the fashion world during her tenure, and is still popular today.

Attentive to detail, adding to day and eveningwear, Chanel established a reputation for extensive uses of costume jewelery, with innovative combinations of real and imitation gems, crystal clusters, strings of pearls, and ornate jewelled cuff links, adding brilliant contrast to the stark simplicity of her designs. The successful development of Chanel No. 5 perfume in 1922 assisted in the financing of her couture empire during difficult years. An interesting aspect of Chanel's career was the reopening of her couture house, which was closed during World War II. After 15 years in exile for having an affair with Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage, Chanel relaunched her work in 1954 at the age of 71, reintroducing the Chanel suit, which formed the basis for many of her collections and become a hallmark. The look adopted shorter skirts and braid trimmed cardigan jackets.

Despite her work and individual style, Chanel craved personal and financial independence, and was ruthless in her search for success. She was unique in revolutionizing the fashion industry with dress reform and in promoting the emancipation of women. Her influence touched many American and European designers, who have continued to reinforce her concept of uncomplicated classics. Once such designer is Karl Lagerfeld who took over designing the Chanel couture line in 1983 and its ready-to-wear collections the following year. He is widely credited with bringing Chanel back to the forefront of fashion, by taking original Chanel designs and tweaking them to appeal to younger customers.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s Lagerfeld kept the Chanel name alive and well. His collections receive high praise, season after season, and he is among the last of the great old-school designers. As Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune so aptly put it in March 2000, "Lagerfeld will soon be the last of the fashion Mohicans, the tribe that came center stage in ready-to-wear in the 1960s but were schooled in the old couture ways of rigorous cut, perfect execution, invention in detail.… Who in the next generation can ever fill his seven-league boots?" Who indeed?











This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008