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In Saumur France, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, otherwise known as Coco, (a name she adopted whilst entertaining at cafes and concerts 1905-1908) was born on August 19, 1883. One of five children, Coco was abandoned by her father after the death of her mother when she was a child, and later found herself in the care of an orphanage. This essay will provide a critical and insightful look at Coco Chanel’s significant contribution to twentieth century fashion. It will document Chanel’s achievements, her rise in the fashion industry, her later comeback after a self imposed exile, her signature items and thought process behind her modern wearable clothes, fabrics, jewellery, accessories and perfumes. (Inoue. n.d.) (Johnson. n.d.)
Gabrielle Bonheur (Coco) Chanel received her prominent rise to fame after a time as a mistress to a wealthy military officer, and a love affair with an English industrialist. It was with the help of these gentlemen who backed her obvious talents, that she was able to gather patronage from high society women after the establishment her first millinery shop, in 1910 in Paris. After initial success she then later expanded to Deauville and Biarritz. Chanel expanded her business into couture garments; in May 1916 she introduced fabrics such as jersey knit, a soft and elasticized knit. During war time, fabrics were both hard to obtain and expensive, Chanel opted to utilize jersey knit which was more commonly used in under garments. Because it was cheap and in abundance Chanel decided to introduced this fabric into the realm of “couture.” Born was a matching suit with a skirt that was raised well above the ankle, showcasing women’s ankles for the first time in fashion. This surprised and shocked many; however the line of garments with its unique style of fabric proved very successful for Chanel. (Inoue. n.d.)
Chanel opting for wear ability and simplicity preferred to dress in mannish attire, and thus designed her garments around the comfort, functional and freeing styles of menswear. As a result she freed women from the tight restrictions of corsets, corset covers, chemise, flannel petticoats, drawers, cotton petticoats and long ground length skirts and dresses of pre World War One. Chanel’s style was comfort, casual attire, recognizing a woman’s nature figure and the need to fit in with women lives, in what she referred to as “the modern working woman”. (Inoue. n.d.) (Johnson. n.d.)
During World War One, women had to take on job roles traditionally taken up by men. This meant that the big dresses and restrictive clothing were simply not an option for modern working women. After the war had ended, women had a new take on life and a new attitude towards clothing, they wanted to remain in the work force and so a new style of clothing was born. Chanel recognized this and her designs were precisely what women wanted, they allowed freedom to horse ride, play crocket, work and complete general everyday requirements without the restrictions of tight fitted clothing. Chanel’s popularity grew as women felt liberated in her clothes. (Johnson. n.d.) (Inoue. n.d.)
Coco Chanel was very cutting edge, everything she did was different, she had strong views and inspired women. Chanel believed short hair epitomized the modern woman and after cutting her hair short others soon followed her lead, she was not the first to have the shorter style cut but she did however bring about its popularity. She designed jewellery taking real gems and mixing them with imitation gems something that was certainly not considered a high end fashion thing to do at the time, and was heavily looked down upon by her jewellery rivals. This did not worry Chanel in the slightest, in fact she decided to charge the same price if not more for her imitation gems then rivals were charging for real gems, she believed her customers were paying for a Chanel experience and not just the jewellery itself. Her attention to detail established Chanel a reputation for innovation, by accessorizing her simplistic garments with crystal clusters, ornate jeweled cufflinks, costume jewellery and strings of pearls, she achieved an added elegance and glamour to her garments. (Johnson. n.d.)
By the 1920’s Chanel had expanded to running four enterprises; her own couture fashion house, a costume jewellery work shop, a textile factory and a perfume laboratory which produced a string of perfumes including the famous Chanel No. 5 created in 1922. A blend of synthetic ingredients, Chanel was the first to declare her fragrance to not be100% natural; something that other companies rarely confessed to, opting to stay with traditional names such as rose, jasmine and lavender. A notable difference for Chanel No.5 was the bottles shape. Instead of opting for the feminine shaped bottles previously on the market, Chanel chose a more masculine, minimalist shape, again stretching and pushing traditional boundaries. Chanel had an innovative eye, an almost natural instinct for what women were looking for. Chanel No.5 would go on to support her empire in harder times for many years to come and still has immense success to date. (Baudot. 1999) (Johnson. n.d.) (Fairly. 2008)
Chanel’s own selection of favorite colours including shades of beige, white and black were the centerpiece colours in many of her designs, in particular her introduction and use of black as a fashion colour was new and cutting edge, previously it had only been worn as a colour of mourning. During the 1920’s and 30’s Chanel continued to create successful modern looks for women, her most famous coming in 1926 with the arrival of the “little black dress”. After a photograph was published in Vogue magazine, the concept of providing a dress suitable for both day and night wear proved universally popular and went on to be a staple for the house of Chanel. In 1929 Chanel revolutionized the handbag, she took inspiration from solders of war who would carry shoulder strapped pouches, and decided to take the clutch purse common to the time and change it into something with straps that would allow women’s hands to be free to do other things. (Fairly. 2008) (Krick, n.d.)
In 1939 Chanel choose to close her shops at the beginning of World War One, deciding it was an unfortunate time to be in business. She was living at the Hotel Ritz in Paris where she would live on and off for over 30 years, even during the German occupation. In 1953 Chanel returned to Paris and resurrected her career in the fashion industry at age 70. Her new line initially was not a critical success in Paris, believed by some to be due to her relationship with the Nazis during the war. Chanel persevered and within three seasons the Chanel suit became a must have item, with its tweed fabric, slim skirt and collarless jacket. In England and America however it was a different story, they loved Chanel’s designs immediately and customers went on to have a long and faithful allegiance to her brand in those countries. (Inoue, M. n.d.) (Coco Chanel, n.d.) (Krick, n.d.)
Other note worthy items Chanel introduced to the fashion world were her signature red lipstick. Without Chanel’s amazing forward thinking ability in defining lipstick packaging women the world over may still be using lipstick wrapped in paper. She decided she needed a carry anywhere more practical way of using the lipstick and devised an ivory and brass case with a swivel mechanism. After five years of research and development the first Chanel lipstick in a case went on sale; 1,500 limited edition lipsticks sold out immediately. She also decided to free women from of grips of tight and ill fitted heals instead introducing the ballerina slipper, a flat and comfortable shoe that was versatile, easy to wear and most of all allowed women to stride rather than take petite steps.(Fairly. 2008)
In conclusion Coco Chanel died at the Ritz Hotel on January 10th 1971 aged 87; she never married and remained childless. Coco Chanel was an entrepreneur, a visionary dedicated to socially freeing and empowering women. She brought about change not only with her clothes, shoes, lipstick, bags, but in how women viewed themselves and their ability to take control of their lives. Her forward thinking ability to create comfortable, wearable and practical clothes based around a woman’s natural shape, freed women from the oppression and restrictions of corsets, multiple petticoats and heavy ankle length dresses. Women were now able to ride horses freely, work adequately, run, skip, jump, swim and do any activity without the unnecessary weight and confines of what they were wearing. She brought in ballerina slippers so that women could run, she brought in lipstick in a case so that women could take beauty everywhere with them, she brought in the handbag with shoulder straps for more versatility. Modern society has an awful lot to thank Coco Chanel for, her fearless inner self and perfectionist personality gave her a conviction that would cripple the average person, however when the chips were down she had such an amazing ability of forward thinking and revolutionized a common underwear fabric into a couture fabric and made it a best seller. When she was disgruntled about the length of her skirt she took incredible chances and raised the skirt length. She was not afraid to challenge society and in doing so created a new path in life for women the world over. Renewed confidence, meant women were able to match men and better them in many things, this would eventually bring about the feminist movement.
In this essay Coco Chanel’s rise in the fashion industry has been discussed as has her signature items such as Chanel no.5 perfume, her line of imitation costume jewellery, the famous little black dress, her innovative use of jersey knit fabric, her comeback to the fashion industry at age 70 and her thinking behind her designs colour and style.
Long live Coco Chanel!
By Karen Elzinga (COPYRIGHTED)
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