Loretta Barnard

Know who you’re Googling: Coco Chanel

Approx Reading Time-12This week we break out the Little Black Dress to honour the birthday of the peerless fashion colossus, Coco Chanel.

 

 

 

The little black dress – one of the greatest fashion innovations of the last hundred years or more. Every woman has at least one (or should have). It’s a wardrobe staple: simple, elegant, versatile, sophisticated, the ultimate symbol of chic.

Coco Chanel created the LBD in 1926, as a simple, short black sheath that could suit women of all body shapes. She referred to it as a dress “that all the world would wear”. Black was a revolutionary choice of colour because until then, it was really only worn at funerals or by widows.

It’s safe to say that in all its subsequent permutations, the LBD has never gone out of style. A good LBD is timeless. A good LBD is an investment (well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). It doesn’t matter whether you’re young, or of more mature years, there’s a little black dress out there with your name on it.

Another perennial Chanel creation was the Chanel suit, designed in 1925 and still worn today. With its button-up collarless jacket and well-fitted skirt, it was pretty unorthodox for the time. Made of wool, the suit was comfortable, easy to wear and practical, equally appropriate in a business setting or a social gathering.

By the 1920s, women had gained more social freedom. They’d taken up the slack in factories, shops and offices during the war years when the men were away, and now they were taking professional positions in their own right. Chanel capitalised on this liberation, by taking women out of corsets and long skirts and into comfortable, practical clothing that was also stylish. She also made wearing trousers (bell-bottoms) fashionable for women.

Her designs attracted customers from all over Europe and beyond… In her own words: “Fashion changes, but style is eternal”.

Another thing she did was to introduce accessories, such as plain hats devoid of gaudy feathers, flowing scarves and costume jewellery; she made it acceptable to mix and match pearls and colourful beads. She occasionally wore mismatched earrings, which were set off by her fabulous bob haircut. She embodied ultra-modernity, and became a fashion and style icon herself.

It was also during the 1920s that she launched a fragrance – the iconic Chanel No. 5 – stating that perfume was as important as any other fashion accessory. This was the first perfume to bear its designer’s name.

This woman well and truly broke new ground and her impact has endured to this day – there are over 300 Chanel stores across the world today – so it’s sobering to discover her rather humble beginnings.

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born on August 19, 1883 in a small town in western France, and had a tough childhood. She grew up in an orphanage after her mother died and her father abandoned her. Nuns taught her how to sew and she took to millinery with ease in her teens. She received her nickname “Coco” during a brief stint as a cabaret chanteuse.

Around 1903, a wealthy beau helped her to set up a small business as a milliner; a subsequent, wealthier beau helped her to open her first shop in Paris in 1910.

Coco Chanel’s business was so successful that she was soon able to open shops in other cities. She also began making clothes. The story goes that one cold day, she made a dress out of an old jersey. Its simple design screamed modernity and style. The dress was remarked upon by lots of women, jersey not being a fashionable fabric at the time, and Chanel’s decision to make more was the beginning of her long and outstanding design career.


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Coco exuded confidence and obviously had a head for business. By the end of the 1920s, Chanel had something like 3,000 employees and her designs soon attracted customers from all over Europe and beyond.

Her motto became “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury”.

Her success and growing wealth ensured her financial independence and a great deal of personal freedom. She had numerous lovers in her life, among them the great composer Igor Stravinsky, whom she met while doing design work for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (she also had an affair with Diaghilev), Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, a Russian nobleman, and designer Paul Iribe.

The Duke of Westminster fancied her and proposed marriage on more than one occasion, but while she obviously cared about the Duke – their romance enduring for some years – she never married. When France was under Nazi occupation in World War II, Chanel had a liaison with a German officer, something that didn’t endear her to her countrymen, but her shop remained open, so perhaps she was prepared to sacrifice political ideals for economic reasons. It’s not for me to say.

Chanel continued to design after the war, and remained a paragon of elegance for the rest of her life. In her own words: “Fashion changes, but style is eternal”.

Her professional interests included perfume laboratories, a textile factory and a costume jewellery business. She remained an entrepreneur until her death, aged 87, in 1971.

There’s so much to Google about Chanel. Why not slip into your LBD and get cracking?

 

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who has authored four non-fiction books, been a contributing writer to a wide range of reference books and whose essays have been published across a number of platforms. A regular contributor to The Big Smoke, she also coordinates the TBS Next Gen program.

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