Chanel, the iconic haute couture house, founded by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in 1913, came to embody its founder’s philosophy, taste, and style, and set a distinctive and influential tone for women’s fashion. Coming to prominence during the height of cultural modernity in the 1920s and 1930s, Chanel’s designs wrapped high and low cultural references into beau-tiful yet practical clothing and jewelry for women of Europe and the Americas. In their ar-ticulation of clean, classic lines, her designs set a standard for women’s fashion and cloth-ing, relevant from 1910 through to the 1960s. She created several iconic but understated staples of many women’s wardrobes, such as her signature cardigan and suit, the quilted handbag with a chain-link strap that left its wearer’s hands free, and “the little black dress,” all of which continue to be part of women’s wardrobes today in some shape and form. Cha-nel died in 1971, leaving the future of the brand and its leadership uncertain.
Born in 1883, abandoned by her father and after the early death of her mother when she was 11, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was raised in a convent in the small medieval town of Aubazine, France, in very modest circumstances. According to one source, this made her “intensely conscious of the way people lived and keenly aware of the way people looked.” Chanel also offered varied accounts of her past; in her own words, “My life didn’t please me, so I created my life.” Before her mother died Chanel‘s family lived in Saumur, a military town, that was home to the French cav-alry, and Chanel was surrounded by men and their horses from an early age. She grew up wearing the simple outfits of schoolgirls: dark skirts and jacket with a white collared shirt. Chanel recalled, “I wore what all little girls of that period wore, a little tailored suit. [. . .] that was how little girls in the provinces were dressed: either one went to a convent and wore its uniform, or else one was a little girl who didn’t go to the convent but was taught at home, and one wore a double-breasted suit.” She learned to sew, and at 18 worked as a shopgirl for a lingerie and trousseau firm. Chanel was a slim-hipped, flat- chested, dark-haired, intense young woman; she embodied the new boyish look of the age.
My life didn’t please me, so I created my life
Chanel escaped her impoverished background when she met Etienne Balsan, heir to a textile fortune and avid horseman who had just purchased Royallieu, a former abbey, to turn into a stable. In 1905, he brought Chanel, along with his mistress and the rest of his entourage, to live at Royallieu, in Picardy (about 45 minutes north-east of Paris), a leading center for racehorses and thoroughbred stables, where up-per-class society and courtesans and demimondaines mixed easily along with the racing set. Balsan, for a time Chanel’s lover, remained a lifelong close friend and provided critical financial and emotional support for her first entrepreneurial ef-forts. Life at Royallieu was sporty and relaxed; Chanel learned to ride, and when she went to the local tailor for a pair of jodhpurs in order to save herself the cost of boots and enable her to ride astride instead of sidesaddle, the tailor was reportedly “incredulous.”According to one report, she disdained the obligatory top hat or tri-corne ladies wore for riding, insisting instead on a headband that fastened under her chignon to keep her hair in place. When the tailor asked, “A headband? Like the tennis women wear?” Chanel replied no, “narrower, neater . . . more like a nun’s headband, worn just off the forehead.”
From early on, Chanel had clear, simple ideas about what was practical to wear yet looked well on a woman, and she pulled it off with great panache; soon she cut her hair into the stylish “bob” that was becoming the mode. As she noted, “I looked like nothing. Nothing was right on me but my little school suit, which made every-one laugh. Dresses didn’t fit me, and I didn’t give a damn.”
Dresses didn’t fit me, and I didn’t give a damn
First Designs: Dressing for Life
Chanel made her first public design foray when she bought some hats from Galer-ies Lafayette, a Paris department store, removed their extensive trimmings, and modeled the simpler results herself. Abhorring the elaborate hat designs of the day, Chanel had sniffed, “How can the brain function in those things?” She placed a large white feather on a large-brimmed, otherwise unadorned dark hat. The design contrasted starkly with the lavishly ornamented, wide-brimmed hats worn by wealthy women of the time. Balsan gave her space in his Paris rooms for a work-shop, and she soon engaged a top Paris milliner to help meet burgeoning demand.
By 1909, demand for her hats was such that, with the help of her then-lover Arthur “Boy” Capel, a friend of Balsan’s, she opened Chanel Modes, a hat shop, in the sea-side resort town of Deauville. Capel, an Englishman and avid horseman making his fortune in coal and transportation, introduced Chanel further to Parisian theater, high life, and fashion. By sharing her designs with friends from Capel’s socialite circle and theater world, her styles gained public visibility among those avid for the latest fashions; by 1910, Chanel’s hats were featured in fashion magazines.
by 1910, Chanel’s hats were featured in fashion magazines.
Drawn to the ease and practicality of men’s clothes, Chanel regularly borrowed Capel’s argyle sweaters or coats on cooler days at Deauville, cinching them with a thin belt at the waist; she soon had women clamoring for men’s sweaters. When she wore a straight marine jacket, the same thing happened; she designed for herself and other women. As at Royallieu, Deauville fostered a freedom and relaxation of rules associated with resort life. She adopted the English habit of living in sweaters, but mixed this look with jewels in a way “no lady of English society would dare to.” She was a devotee of fresh air and sunshine, and was frequently photographed with Capel and his smart set on horseback or playing tennis. Along with other in-dependent women of the time, she made it fashionable to spend time outdoors and sport a suntan. She exemplified the ideal of the new woman, and not just physical-ly; she lived openly with a man to whom she was not married and enjoyed finan-cial independence as an entrepreneur.
she made it fashionable to spend time outdoors and sport a suntan
She exemplified the ideal of the new woman,
21 Rue de Cambon: Setting up Shop
In 1910, with financial backing from Capel, she opened a dress shop in Paris at 21 rue de Cambon and also sold hats. In time, she offered clothing for women—partly based on her favorite outfits from Deauville and Royallieu—consisting of flannel blazers, jersey sweaters, and trousers. “Fashion is not simply a matter of clothes,” she had said. “Fashion is in the air, borne upon the wind.” Chanel herself had be-come a fashion celebrity of sorts, she recalled:
In the grandstands people began talking about my amazing unusual hats, so neat and austere. Customers came, initially prompted by curiosity. One day I had a visit from one such woman, who admitted quite openly: “I came to have a better look at you.” I was the curious creature, the little woman whose straw boater fitted her head, and whose head fitted her shoulders.
Fashion is not simply a matter of clothes, fashion is in the air, borne upon the wind.
The outbreak of World War I (1914–1919) put a damper on fashion (while it freed women to wear trousers as they moved into munitions and other factory work). Once the war was over, designs were further simplified and stripped of ornamenta-tion. Poiret’s slim, flowing line had presaged le garçonne (or the flapper), and fash-ion’s emphasis on the boyish figure: flat chests, slim hips, “the waist disappeared altogether,” the androgynous silhouette, and the “bob,” a very short haircut.
The androgynous silhouette, and the “bob
The lives of women during the war—even the rich—called for walking, biking, rid-ing buses, driving ambulances—and meant they needed clothes that enabled them to move about freely, and that they did not require the help of servants to get in and out of. Necessity continued to drive Chanel’s innovation: wealthy women could no longer rely on their chauffeurs for errands—especially on rainy days, so Chanel invented a rubberized-style overcoat, based on the lines of chauffeurs’ coats, with deep pockets and adjustable tabs at the cuff. Wartime attire for women typically comprised a straight skirt, sailor blouse or shirt, boot-heeled shoes, and an undecorated hat, all geared to ease of movement and practicality. These principles informed fashion during the years after the war as well. Chanel’s designs—already simple and unfussy—reflected this new austerity and emphasized simplicity, mak-ing do with what one had, with only inexpensive ornamentation such as costume jewelry for embellishment. Legend had it that Chanel advised her patrons to edit judiciously: “Take out one item after you’ve put everything on.” A fashion historian noted:
The real secret to Chanel’s success was not that her clothes were practical and com-fortable, but that they made the rich look young and casual. . . . Women had a new image of themselves that made the formal and ostentatious elegance of the prewar period look old fashioned. Chanel promoted a kind of uniform, which was quickly regarded as a modern “classic.” The fact that her clothes looked practical was as much a part of their success as any actual practicality.
The real secret to Chanel’s success was not that her clothes were practical and com-fortable, but that they made the rich look young and casual
Artists and Exiles
The tightly knit world of French society remained somewhat closed to Chanel, de-spite her wealthy racing-set boyfriends and entrepreneurial success. Through her connections to the theater world, however, she met patron and socialite Misia Sert, who drew her into the world of arts, where Chanel felt kinship with Dadaism, Sur-realism, and Cubism. She designed the costumes for Cocteau’s Antigone and Di-aghilev’s Le Train Bleu, capturing Riviera chic with her simple beach outfits for Di-aghilev’s production . In 1920, Chanel provided the financial backing for Diaghi-lev’s restaging of Le Sacre du Printemps. Maintaining a personal regime of early-to-bed and early-to-rise, she nonetheless sent “well-chiseled ladies with social credentials, dressed in Chanel clothes, to dine at the best restaurants, attend the best parties and promote her name.”42 Fashion and contemporary art grew increasingly integrated; the 1925 Art Deco exhibition in Paris showcased fashion and clothing de-sign with paintings, sculpture, prints, décor, and photography.
Chanel’s circles expanded to include artists such as Picasso, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Misia Sert’s husband Jose Maria Sert, and Jean Cocteau, among others. As the Russian Revolution pushed the tsar’s family and other Russian aristocracy into exile, they also made their way to Paris, some with nothing but the clothes on their backs and their fabulous jewels. Chanel and the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich became lovers; by now, however, she was the wealthy partner, supporting her impoverished companion.
Lucky No. 5: “Legend is the Construction of Fame”
The grand duke introduced her to master perfumer Ernst Beaux, who had been perfumer to the tsar. Soon after, in 1920, Chanel and Beaux launched her signature perfume, Chanel No. 5. Competing accounts of the famous perfume’s origins obscure its beginnings. Beaux claimed to recall making No. 5 immediately upon returning from the war: “I had been part of a campaign in the northern region of Eu-rope, above the arctic circle, during the midnight sun, where the lakes and rivers exude a perfume of extreme freshness. I retained this note and recreated it, not without difficulty.”44 In contrast, Chanel’s version held that she had gone to the south of France to escape from her grief over the tragic death of Capel (in a car accident in 1919). “She took refuge on the Côte d’Azur, where breathing in the essences and fields of roses, she invented the perfume—No. 5.” Regardless of its origins, No. 5 was revolutionary; Beaux had discovered that aldehydes enhanced and stabilized ingredients such as jasmine,46 and concocted the scent with a unique mix of natural and synthetic ingredients. Whereas traditional perfumes typically consisted of a single heavy floral note, Chanel described No. 5 as a “bouquet of abstract flowers.” The bottle design captured a modern aesthetic; rather than the traditional “flacons,” Chanel chose something more reminiscent of men’s eau de toilette bottles—a modernist, simple square, with a clean elegant logo and label “that needed no translation into different languages.”
Before production of the new scent was even underway, Chanel took a vial of it with her to dinner at one of Cannes’ most fashionable restaurants. According to one source, as she dined with Beaux and friends, “she surreptitiously sprayed the women who passed their table with the new perfume.” She sprayed the scent throughout her boutiques in Biarritz, Deauville, and Paris, and handed out small vials as samples to her clientele. As she considered commercial options for distributing the new perfume beyond her own boutiques, Chanel approached Galeries Lafayette owner Theophile Bader to ask him to stock No. 5. Bader indicated that No. 5 would need to be manufactured in far greater quantities than Beaux’s labora-tory could manage, and introduced Chanel to Pierre Wertheimer, co-owner with his brother of Bourjois, one of France’s largest cosmetics companies. A 1924 agreement established Les Parfums Chanel, of which Chanel owned 10%, Wertheimer 70%, and Bader 20% (which Wertheimer subsequently bought). Production of No. 5 took off, and the company filed a trademark with the USPTO in 1927. Wertheimer also began producing Chanel’s lipsticks and face powders, with the first (red lip-stick) unveiled in 1924 (trademark filed with the USPTO in 1925), followed by the iconic black tube appearing in 1929.
Return to the Originals
In 1954, Chanel came out of retirement at the age of 71 in order to counter what she saw as the “absurdities” and “extremes” of haute couture at the time. When Chanel had returned to Paris after the war, Christian Dior reigned as haute couture’s king with his “new look.” Fashion Week, organized by a well-known publicist and held in New York, had begun to erode French fashion dominance. The war too had ravaged the couture business. According to one observer, when Chanel saw women “struggling with the complicated designs of Dior and Balenciaga,” she was said to comment, “Fashion has become a joke. The designers have forgotten that there are women inside the dresses. Most women dress for men and want to be admired. But they must also be able to move, to get into a car without bursting their seams! Clothes must have a natural shape.” Chanel traveled to New York to approach the Wertheimers to fund her assault on prevailing trends. In a deal that relinquished all ownership in her businesses but left her with full control over designs, she managed to raise the funds to reassemble a team. She hired 350 staff and asked Madame Manon, former head of her 1930s workroom, to direct her new atelier. She launched her new collection in February 1954, and by early 1955 Dior himself was turning to Chanel’s 1920s designs for inspiration.
Fashion has become a joke. The designers have forgotten that there are women inside the dresses
Chanel brought back many of her original designs, each somewhat modified. Her 1930 handbag reappeared in 1955, slimmed, squared, and quilted, with a gold or metallic chain to leave the hands free; it quickly became a status symbol. Her popular two-toned shoes from the 1920s were reintroduced in a new shape as a low-heeled sling-back pump. “Her old tenet of understatement was resurrected,” one observer noted. Although initially some accused her of regurgitating rather than changing, by the end of the season she won critics over with her “sophisticated simplicity.”Chanel was 77 attuned to the shifts in fashion’s landscape, with ready-to-wear on the rise. Many of the Paris houses—Nina Ricci, Yves St. Laurent, Pierre Cardin, and Lanvin—began designing for the ready-to- wear market. By 1957, Chanel’s comeback was so complete that Neiman Marcus celebrated her as the most significant designer of the previous 50 years and New Orleans gave her keys to the city. “I’ve never wanted to give up the House of Chanel,” she said, “which is the only thing that’s mine, in which no one else has had any part, the only place where I’ve felt truly happy. There, no one could get under my skin. Everything I’ve tried has been a success.”
By MUKTI KHAIRE and KERRY HERMAN
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