The impact of Coco Chanel on Fashion

Freshman (College 1st year) ・Art ・MLA ・11 Sources

The fashion industry has experienced a significant evolution since the 18th century till now. There has been a lot of development in the industry regarding the designs of clothes and accessories. In France, in between the first world war and the second, there was a great change and reform in many sectors. This time was considered to be the Golden age of the french fashion industry where the bouffant coiffures gave way to short bobs, dresses with long trains stepped down to allow above-the-knee pinafores. It is basically impossible to iterate the impact it had on fashion. A great courier, Coco Chanel, was a major icon in the industry at the time. Coco broke free of her humble beginnings to liberate women’s clothing from the corseted and restrictive styles of Cleo de Merode’s time. She helped popularize a completely modern, unhindered style of dress that put more emphasis on elegance, simplicity, and luxury. She popularized the bob hairstyle; the little black dress and the use of jersey knit for women’s clothing and also elevated the status of both costume jewelry and knitwear. She not only made beautiful clothes but also advanced women’s rights. She is the only fashion designer listed on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century (Horton, Simmons, and Sally 103).

Chanel’s Life

Coco Chanel was born on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France in the family of fair trader Albert Chanel and his girlfriend Eugenie Jeanne Devolle. Her father was a vendor who sold haberdashery goods on the street market, and her mother worked as a laundrywoman in the charity hospital belonging to the Sisters of Providence. They did not have a permanent place to live, and they lived a nomadic life, traveling to and from market towns. In 1984, Albert married Eugenie under the influence of her family (Chaney 16). Her mother died of bronchitis at the age of thirty-two, and as a result, her father gave her up to an orphanage at the age of twelve. She was raised by nuns who taught her how to sew- a skill that would lead to her career. Coco Chanel was shy of her miserable childhood all her life. Later she would retell of her childhood somewhat differently, and she often included more glamorous accounts which were untrue (Picardie). At the age of eighteen, Chanel went to live in a boarding house set aside for Catholic girls in the town of Moulins.

With her sewing skill she learned during the six years she spent at the orphanage, Chanel was able to find a job as a seamstress. Chanel also used to sing in a cabaret which was frequented by cavalry officers when she was not sewing. Chanel made her a stage debut singing at a popular entertainment venue. She was among the girls dubbed poseuses, the performers who entertained the crowd between star turns. The money earned was what they managed to accumulate when the plate was passed among the audience in appreciation of their performance. It was during this time when Chanel acquired the name ‘Coco’, which was derived from the famous song “Qui QU’a Vu Coco?” that she used to sing (Charles, Edmonde 37). She began working at the spa resort in Vichy in 1906, which hosted concert halls, theaters, and cafes where she hoped to achieve success as a performer. Chanel’s youth and physical charms impressed those she auditioned for but her singing voice marginalized leading to her failure in finding the stage. She now realized that singing and a stage career was not her future.

In her early twenties, she came to a conclusion that the main thing in life was money. She became involved with Etienne Balsan in 1905. Coco Chanel hung around his neck. In her eyes, he was the real man, who had money and was able to spend it easily. Having settled in the castle of her lover, she took full advantage of her new life. She slept until noon, drinking coffee with milk and reading cheap novels. Balsan helped her start a millinery business in Paris. Later, Coco Chanel met with a friend of Balsan Captain, Arthur Edward, an English polo player with a straight black hair and a dull complexion who would later replace Balsan as her boyfriend. In 1910, Chanel became licensed hat maker and started selling hats in her boutique named Chanel Modes on 21 Rue Cambon (Mackrell, Alice 133). The street became famous throughout the world and had been linked to her name for a half a century. In 1913, Coco opened her boutique in Deauville that quickly attracted regular clients.

Impact on Fashion

Coco dreamt of developing and making her line of women’s clothing. Her first taste of clothing success came from a dress she fashioned of an old jersey on a chilly day. She offered to make the dress in response to the people who asked about where she got the dress from. At this period, Coco had no right to make women’s dresses as she could be brought to justice for illegal competition because she did not have a license for dress making. She later found a solution and started sewing dresses of jersey fabric which had been only used for men’s underwear and earned her first capital on it. "My fortune is built on that old jersey that I had put on because it was cold in Deauville," she once told author Paul Morand.

Coco Chanel got support from her close family members, her sister, Antoinette Chanel and her aunt, Adrienne Chanel, who helped her to model and advertise her clothes (Charles, Edmonde 42). All her dress inventions were born that way. She did not excel while designing her clothes nor did she draw sketches of clothes. She usually threw a cloth on a mannequin and then cut a shapeless mass of material until the desired silhouette was obtained. Chanel rapidly grew and became the world fashion designer. She was able to bring into existence a style that had been previously unthinkable for women; tracksuits. The style produced by The House of Chanel was simple, practical and elegant. However, in 1914, the world war one began, and there were chaos in France, but Coco continued working energetically, generating new ideas and presenting new demands for clothing. She was able to design the first female skinny suit from Chanel. Years later, she sewed a redingote without a belt and ornaments, removing the curves with almost masculine stringency. Coco created an understated waist, dress shirt, pants for women and beach pajamas.

Despite the fact that The House of Chanel designed and introduced women’s pants, Coco seldom wore them because she believed a woman would never look good in pants as a man would. When World War 1 broke out in year 1914, women working within the public sector continued to wear skirts while women involved in manual work began to wear trousers and overalls in the workplace. When Arthur Capel died in a car accident in 1919, she started experimenting the black cloth. She brought black clothes into vogue to make all women in France mourning for her beloved.

Coco Chanel opened a big fashion house in Biarritz in the summer of the 1920s, and later she met with a Russian émigré, the Grand Duke Dmitri, and they both felt mutual passion for each other.

The short romance was fruitful as Coco learned many ideas from him. Moreover, there were parts of the Russian folk costume shirts with original embroidery in her new collection after meeting Grand Duke. During a road tour in France, Grand Duke introduced Coco to a Russian perfumer, Ernest Beaux in Grasse town. After a year of numerous experiments and hard work Chanel No. 5 was born and as a result the world had a perfume for women that smelt like a woman. In the early 1920s, Coco invented the famous” little black dress” which made her famous worldwide and a symbol of elegance, luxury, and good taste.

Feminist Cause

Coco, the most influential designer, revolutionized the way women wore clothes and gave a new way for a fashion brand, capitalizing on the changing times she was living in and her status as a fashion icon (Chaney, Lisa 211). When Coco first started, women were still in corsets, but she designed unrestrictive clothes which came in straight and sleek lines. Coco played a significant role in accelerating the popularity of trousers as a fashion item. She adopted men’s styles for women, and the trousers were fashionable during the world war. Women used to wear trousers when working in traditionally men jobs. Coco used to wear sailor’s pants instead of swimming costumes to avoid exposing herself while at the beach resort of Deauville and the style spread fast as her vast multitude of followers emulated her. She designed and made clothes for women’s bodies instead of men’s eyes (Bronwyn).

Chanel was the first designer to use jersey, which was formerly reserved for men’s underwear. All her clothes were mostly designed for a woman’s freedom. They were simple, practical and comfortable, a complete opposite of what women’s clothing had previously been. They were also flashy and excessively based around an uncomfortable corset. The war had resulted in short supply of more expensive fabric hence the choice of material was one of necessity and early in her career it was a cheap option to buy in bulk.

Chanel was the first designer to borrow from men’s wear for women’s attire when she created iconic suits. Composed of a collarless boxy wool jacket with braid trim, fitted sleeves and metallic decorated buttons with accompanying slim line skirt, the outfit was the perfect choice for the post-war woman who was building a career in the male-dominated industry (Kim, Ann and Hyejeong 23). She also designed pockets on women’s clothing which were not previously part of a woman’s wardrobe.

Coco Chanel was the original girl boss as she owned and ran her business in a largely male dominated industry. She was financially independent and never had a husband. This made her remarkable considering her humble beginnings. She was quoted saying “The moment I had to choose between the man I loved and my dresses, I chose my dresses.”

According to The Wonderland Magazine, Chanel was the first to regularly design and commission unique costume pieces for her collections. She had a wonderful timing because, after the First World War, the rich avoided wearing precious jewelry for fear of looking unpatriotic. So they optioned for costume jewelry and proclaimed their independence by wearing fakes as opposed to being kept by a man.

Coco Chanel greatly influenced women’s fashion. Women had freedom in what they were supposed to wear, and they were able to dress how they wanted. Coco’s fashion led to the creation of other fashions as she was an inspiration to others not only to expand but also to continue in evolving the fashion. Coco made it possible for menswear to be worn as womenswear and this was a milestone in fashion as it helped to show men and women were equal. She loosened the waistline, freed the ankles, allowed women to cut their hair and gave them freedom to do so much more.

Works Cited

Chaney, Lisa. Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life. Penguin, 2011.

Charles-Roux, Edmonde. Chanel and her world: Friends, fashion, and fame. Vendome Press, 1981.

Cosgrave, Bronwyn. Vogue on Coco Chanel. Quadrille Publishing Ltd, 2012.

Hirst, Gwendoline. “Chanel 1883-1971 (Part One)”.BA Fashion. 8 March 2011. Web. 30 March 2017.

Horton, Ros. Women who changed the world. Quercus, 2007.

Kim, Eundeok, Ann Marie Fiore, and Hyejeong Kim. Fashion trends. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.

Mackrell, Alice. Art and fashion. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2005.

Picardie, Justine. “The Secret Life of Coco Chanel.” Daily Telegraph, 29 July 2014. Web.

The Times, 1999.

The Wonderland. 4 September 2013. Web. 30 March 2017.

Thomas, Dana, “The Power Behind The Cologne.” 24 February 2002. Web. 30 March 2017.

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