Today, the term "designer" is too often associated with people who churn out clothing lines every season. In this sense, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel stands as a breed apart. Fashion analysts today attribute the birth of modern fashion to Coco Chanel. She is viewed as a woman and an artist ahead of her time. Her clothing influenced not only the way women dress, but the way women define femininity. In this sense, Chanel is very much a part of the modern artistic movement, along with the likes of Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau.
This paper examines the many facets of Coco Chanel's artistry. The first part of the paper looks at Chanel as a product of her social environment, discussing the factors that have contributed to the evolution of Chanel's style and clothing designs. The next part then looks at Chanel's designs and choice of fabrics. Chanel never defined herself as a feminist, but she created clothing that freed women from the constricting clothes of the Victorian era.
In this sense, she both reflected and contributed to the growing women's liberation movement.
In the final section, the paper looks at two representative examples of Chanel's enduring designs -- the Chanel suit and the little black dress. It examines how these two articles of clothing have changed the way women dress, both for business and for special occasions.
This paper argues that Chanel contributed not only to the modern artistic movement, but also to the modern women's movement. Through Chanel's artistic creations -- articulated in her fashion, clothing, and perfume -- have allowed women to express their femininity in new, less constricting and more liberating ways.
The early years
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born on August 19, 1883 in Saumur, a small city in France. Chanel, however, did not have the benefit of growing up with a stable family life. Shortly after Chanel's father abandoned his family, the children were raised by relatives and later, in an orphanage ("Gabrielle Chanel").
It is difficult to reconstruct much of Chanel's early life, largely because Chanel herself told conflicting stories regarding her past. The most widely-accepted story states that Chanel learned dressmaking either from strict aunts or from taking design courses in school. However, biographer Alex Madsen points out that this is fantasy. Instead, Chanel learned dressmaking from an orphanage, under the tutelage of nuns who raised her after her mother's death. She later underwent a standard apprenticeship with a provincial dressmaker (Madsen 28).
Other biographers like Janet Wallach believe that these early years of deprivation fueled many of Chanel's lifelong pursuits. She also capitalized on her combination of physical beauty, creativity and business acumen to gain wealthy boyfriends/patrons, men whom she euphemistically referred to as her "protectors" (Wallach).
From her early start as an apprentice and then later as a milliner, the young Coco would build what would eventually become one of the most influential houses of fashion.
Chanel's route to being a fashion artist and icon took several detours. At age 17, Coco left her seamstress position in Moulins, a job which the sisters of the Aubazine orphanage helped secure for their former charge. Instead, Chanel embarked on a career as a cabaret singer. While singing, Chanel then met Etienne Balsan, a wealthy playboy who financed her move to Paris and her first business -- a hat shop (Sischy). These fashionable hats were Chanel's humble start in the fashion business.
For people who view Coco Chanel as a feminist icon, it is difficult to reconcile the image of independence with Chanel's series of protectors. After Etienne Balsan, Chanel then had an affair with Arthur Capel, who is widely-regarded the love of her life. The wealthy Capel bankrolled Chanel's career further, financing her expansion to clothing. Capel also helped Coco open shops in Paris, as well as the resort towns of Deauville and Biarritz (Sischy).
These personal and financial relationships allowed Coco Chanel to establish her name in the world of fashion. More importantly, financial solvency allowed Chanel more freedom to further challenge prevailing fashion dictates and to create her own vision. These new designs involved not only fresh and original styles, but also the use of innovative material, revolutionizing the way women express themselves through their clothing.
Early innovations (1909-1920)
From the very beginning, Coco Chanel was a maverick who was challenging the dictates of prevailing style. First of all, she became a designer at a time when all other important couturiers were men. Furthermore, Chanel enjoyed many pursuits that were considered "improper" for young ladies at the turn of the 20th century. For example, Coco enjoyed sports like horseback riding and other outdoor activities. As a result of her athleticism, she also had a slender and muscular silhouette that looked boyish, a further departure from the Victorian female ideal (Dunn).
Even the earliest designs already represented innovations from the prevailing styles. Chanel's hats, for example, were far simpler than the extravagant and complicated headgear of the early 1900s. While fashionable hats were stiff, unwieldy and ostentatious, Chanel hats were soft and simple. They conformed to the shape of a woman's head and were often devoid of the flowers and other decorations that festooned traditional women's headgear (Wallach).
Many of the early innovations Coco Chanel made continue to influence today's fashion styles. The clean hats were only the beginning of Chanel's move towards simplicity. By the beginning of World War I, Chanel felt the need to further update the remaining constrictive clothing styles of the post-Victorian era. The corseted and other constrictive clothing styles proved highly-impractical for working women. This became more evident for the women who took over the factory jobs vacated by men who were called to military service.
In answer, Chanel crafted what became known as the "working costume" for working women. She eschewed hoops, crinoline and the traditional ballooning Victorian silhouettes for simple, straight-cut jersey dresses in black fabric. For alternative, Chanel also drew on menswear for inspiration. She crafted straight skirts, sailor jackets and men's pull-over sweaters (Dunn).
During the early 20th century, the idea that women should dress for comfort rather than ostentation was by itself a revolutionary idea. As with many revolutionary ideas, many people -- women especially -- were leery of the new designs and silhouettes. However, in a few years, women embraced the idea of comfortable clothes, and the fluid "Chanel look" had become the norm.
The simplicity of Chanel's design philosophy was also echoed in one of her most celebrated creations -- the Chanel No. 5 perfume. The name of the perfume itself was detached and without any frills. It was the first perfume to ever bear its designer's name. Furthermore, the perfume was contained in an Art Deco bottle with clean, rectangular lines. In contrast, most of the French perfumes of this day were contained in ornate bottles (Sischy).
The Chanel designs of the 1920s also represent important developments regarding the role of women in fashion design. Prior to Chanel and other female designers, many male designers created female clothes that were oriented to masculine audiences. Female clothing was thus designed to please whoever was viewing the woman in the dress (Hollander 135). In this sense, women's clothing was made for the eye of the beholder.
Chanel's designs introduced the concept that women should enjoy their clothing as well. In addition to the simpler silhouettes and the absence of constrictive undergarments, Chanel also believes that clothes should have a tactile dimension. The material itself must "feel" good (Hollander 135). For these reasons, Chanel turned to silky and clingy fabrics rather than the stiff boning and heavy cloths of Victorian-era dresses.
Another important innovation was Coco Chanel's audience. While many couturiers catered to elite, upper-class women, Chanel catered her designs to working women. The very reason for her silhouette was to allow women to move. Furthermore, Chanel was also comparatively conscious of expenses.
In terms of accessories like jewelry, Coco moved away from status pieces and used over-the-top costume jewelry (Sischy).
Through her clothes, Chanel helped to usher in the 1920s new feminine ideal. Instead of focusing on clothes that changed a woman's shape, Coco Chanel created a style that defined femininity in terms of youthfulness, sexuality and energy. These were clothes that allowed women to move and be active. In many respects, such clothing embodied the images of the strong, independent young women that would be in vogue decades later.
The second wave
If she had retired in the 1930s, Chanel would have already secured her position as one of the influential fashion designers of the 20th century. However, Chanel emerged from retirement after World War II to once again challenge prevailing fashion trends, and to re-establish the idea of comfortable clothing designed to allow for both comfort and movement.
In 1947, designer Christian Dior released his first "New Look" collection. The designs of these Dior clothes harked back curiously to the designs of Victorian dresses. The Dior collection sparked a trend towards hourglass shapes and full skirts. The waists…