Chanel’s Style: Yesterday and Today
“A woman can be overdressed but never over elegant.”
Chances are you have at least one of Coco Chanel’s designs in your closet. Perhaps not the label itself – few of us can afford it— but something she first made popular and has since become a staple, reinterpreted for the modern woman. In her lifetime, Chanel inspired not only new trends, but her influence remains everywhere we turn; we might not recognize it as hers, but it’s there. Here are some of the fashion items she introduced to the world:
Casual separates: Chanel’s first items of apparel were made in an ingenious knit called jersey. Originally employed for military underwear and uniforms, jersey was not considered a luxury cloth. But her lease at her boutique in Paris initially prohibited her from selling dresses – there was a dressmaker already in the building – and so she searched for a way to circumvent her limitations. Her lover brought back polo sweaters made of jersey from the UK; she loved the ease and stretch of it. And one summer in Deauville, where she’d inaugurated a shop, she introduced casual wear for women: matching separates in jersey. Though her clientele was suspicious— wealthy women usually endured fittings for one-of-a-kind clothes in male-run fashion salons – her loose skirts, light-weight sweaters, and oversized coats became hits. The next time you’re browsing in a department store, you’re shopping the way Chanel intended.
The little black dress: Most women own at least one; Audrey Hepburn made it the cocktail dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But before Chanel, black was reserved for nuns, schoolgirls or mourning. She once remarked while attending an event where the women wore peacock satins that she’d like “to dress every last one in black serge.” She did. When her little black dress was first introduced, however, it wasn’t popular. French fashion critics derided her for overstepping herself. But American Vogue proclaimed it “a dress for the masses,” predicting it would become as ubiquitous as the “Ford motor car.” The rest, of course, is history.
Costume jewelry: Jewels have always been coveted as status symbols and investments. But Chanel thought it was ridiculous to appear in public dripping in thousands of dollars of jewels. A gift of priceless pearls from a Romanov prince ignited an idea in her. Why not mix real jewels with fake ones? She went to work, setting up ateliers where she interpreted Byzantine motifs using paste gems and false gold. She herself often went out with both fake and real jewelry adorning her. She liked to joke that no one could tell which cost more. Today, costume jewelry is a billion-dollar industry and we all wear it.
The suit: Nowadays, suits are a fixture. But women didn’t wear suits until Chanel made them popular. Her collarless, braid-trimmed suit was introduced later in her career and it has become a classic, copied countless times in countless ways. Chanel’s original was comfortable, made to look chic while withstanding a full day on the job. Pair it with her two-tone pumps and quilted handbag, and you’ll become that self-reliant, successful business woman that she herself was.
C.W. Gortner is the author of Mademoiselle Chanel: A Novel.
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