Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born on this day, August 19, in 1883.
To say that Coco Chanel changed the world is not hyperbole.
In honour of her birthday, a tiny tribute to the woman who brought twin sets, tweed jackets, little black dresses, and quilted flap bags to our closets.
Chanel began as a milliner and ended as the doyenne of the world’s most famous fashion house and creator of the world’s most popular fragrance. She forever altered fashion by stripping away all the frills and frou-frous and in its place introduced her simple and elegant aesthetic.
Her trademarks—the little black dress (Le petit noir, 1926),the tweed Chanel suit (debuted at her comeback collection at the age of 71 on February 5, 1954), the two-toned shoes (1957), the mix of fine and costume jewellery with multiple strands of pearls, chains, and coloured stones (1920s), the quilted flap bag 2.55 (1955)—all these Chanel signatures look as chic and modern today, as when Coco created them.
BUILDING AN EMPIRE
Coco was beautiful, talented, and inovative. She was the mistress of rich and powerful men who set her up in business, but it was ultimately Chanel who created her own great success as France’s grande couturière.
After a brief stint as a singer, Gabrielle became a licensed milliner and opened a hat shop in Paris called Chanel Modes, in 1910 funded by the heir to a textile fortune, Etienne Balsan. Chanel’s hats became widely known when French stage and film actress, Gabrielle Dorziat, who was a fashion trendsetter in Paris, began wearing and popularising the designs of Gabrielle Chanel.
In 1913, a lover—the English businessman Boy Capel—enabled her to open a boutique on Rue Gontaut Biron in Deauville. It was here in the seaside resort where Chanel first premièred her breakout style.
Chanel borrowed clothes from her lover’s closet, confidently sporting menswear tweeds, and, in an era when women never wore pants, she tailored wide-legged trousers paired with jaunty hats of her own creation and made it all look chic and exciting.
Coco revolutionized fashion when she opened a shop in Paris featuring relaxed sportswear sewn out of jersey (never before adopted for women’s clothing, the fabric was traditionally reserved for men’s underwear!). These softly draped garments provided women with comfort and ease of movement—a radical departure from the restrictive, stiff corseted silhouette of the day. Chanel said they were designed for a woman, who, at the time, didn’t exist.
THE QUEEN OF BEIGE (& BLACK & WHITE) Like the nun’s habits Chanel saw during her childhood at the orphanage of the Catholic monastery of Aubazine, black and white was a colour combination that came to symbolize the Chanel brand. Chanel took the colour black—reserved since Victorian times for mourning attire—and made it chic for both day and night.
Coco is credited with inventing The Little Black Dress. It originated from a Chanel design which appeared as a sketch in American Vogue in 1926. The chic, long-sleeved design made in unlined crèpe de chine, was christened the Ford Dress by the magazine’s editors after the era’s black Ford motor car. The copy read,
“Chanel’s Ford Dress” the frock that all the world will wear is model 817 of black crepe de chine. The bodice blouses slightly at the front and sides and has a tight bolero at the back. Especially chic is the arrangement of tiny tucks which cross in front. Imported by Saks.
~ Vogue, 1926
Vogue predicted it would become “sort of a uniform for all women of taste.” How very right they were.
THE HANDBAG BECOMES A SHOULDER BAG
Chanel was dedicated not only to style, but to practicality. In the 1950s, upper-class women cumbersomely carried their purse in their hands. But in 1955, Chanel changed handbag history when she introduced the 2.55 Chanel Shoulder Bag (named for the date it launched: February 1955). The sleek design featured quilted leather and a gold chain for the strap, freeing women’s hands and making it chic for women to wear a bag on their shoulder.
The quilted diamond or herringbone pattern is believed to have been inspired by several sources: jockeys’ riding coats, the stained-glass windows of the abbey at Aubazine, as well as by the cushions in Chanel’s Paris apartment. The original bag had a clasp called the Mademoiselle Lock.
FROM HEAD TO TOE
The label’s iconic beige and black duo was Chanel’s sartorial favourite. At the debut of the two-tone slingback in 1957, Chanel called them, the last touch of elegance.
You leave in the morning wearing beige and black, you have lunch in beige and black, and you attend a cocktail party in beige and black. You’re dressed for the entire day!
~ Coco Chanel
Coco Chanel’s modern, sophisticated clothes, combined with her striking bobbed haircut and tan, articulated her as a cutting edge fashion icon. She not only set the style of the times, but she also redefined fashion. Never before in history had women dressed—or looked—like this until the Parisian couturier, Coco Chanel, changed the fashion mode forever. After a six-decade career, her ideas and ideals about what constitutes style still resonate today.
The Chanel legacy lives on.
Happy Birthday, CC.