Date Posted: October 26, 2011
Print Edition: October 19, 2011
I have always admired women with great style, particularly style that’s heightened by strength and concrete self-identity – when a remarkable fashion moment is indeed a perfect reflection of the wearer and the distinctness of personality that chose it. My fascination with iconic designer Coco Chanel stems directly from this admiration. This was a woman who knew she had the potential to influence, and she wore that knowledge, and dressed women around the world in that knowledge as well. Singlehandedly, she crafted the symbol of status and good taste that the stark black interlocking Cs on a white background have come to represent.
Coco Chanel created herself. Well, perhaps created is too soft a word. She clawed her way out of the conditions of her childhood with the same determination that would come to exemplify her fashion career. Born Gabrielle Chanel in Saumur, France, to market stall owner and a laundress, her childhood was spent in an orphanage, where she learned to sew. The stark black and white of the orphanage nuns’ habits would later influence her designs.
Upon leaving the orphanage at the age of 18, she began to perform in cabarets and bars in Vichy, France. It was here that she took the stage name “Coco,” and became the mistress of textile heir Etienne Balsan. It was through Balsan’s financial support that she could fund her hat-making hobby, and eventually opened a shop where she sold her creations. Not just an average hat shop, it was the birthplace of a global empire and of a life story swathed in determination, innovation and elegance.
She died aged 87 on January 10, 1971. It was a Sunday – a day Chanel always despised for being a day of rest. “There is time for work. There is time for love. That leaves no other time,” she famously said.
“In the beginning, there was Coco.” This is the opening statement of a 2009 biography on Chanel by Karen Karbo and Chelsey McLaren. Where would the modern woman sartorially be without Coco Chanel? Her designs were groundbreaking, and contributed heavily to the evolution of the female. One might say she invented the contemporary woman – a woman who wears pants, simple jewelry, and clean, straight lines. The modern woman – captured in a bottle through the direct scent Chanel No. 5, and in a garment through her trademark little black dress.
“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only,” replied Chanel when asked in the middle of her career about her influences. “Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, and what is happening.” What an incredibly forward-thinking fashion philosophy! Especially when one considers the era Chanel established herself in. Her work was an alarming contrast to the Belle Epoque corsets, lace, and meringue-like hats popular in turn of the century France. Chanel stripped women of these embellishments, and provided a sort of fashionable asceticism – simplicity and starkness. What Chanel offered were light silk blouses, structured black and white suits, short black or beige dresses, and handbags that were beautiful in their simplicity – clothing that reflected a changing society. It was the dawn of the 1920s, and women were shortening their dresses, driving cars, and dancing all night, and needed garments that suited their fast lifestyle.
Her influence on modern fashion is enormous. Chanel was the first to tan for pleasure (on her lover’s Mediterranean yacht), the first to make pants on a girl acceptable, and the first to show up to a resort ball on the French Riviera in a single strand of artificial pearls – all with the help of no one but a tremendous work ethic and a necessary cigarette. Chanel had many lovers, but truly only loved one man, Arthur Capel, whose untimely death in 1919, many say, was the driving force that allowed her to succeed. She disregarded marriage for its implications of feminine financial dependence. She is noted as integral to the women’s movement for liberating women not in deed, but through allowing them the freedom to dress as intelligently, practically, and self-determinately as she herself lived. “Look for the woman in the dress,” she said numerous times. “If there is no woman, the dress is worthless.”
Today, the Chanel couture house is still running under the direction of German designer Karl Lagerfeld. Lagerfeld himself has stated that the brand still carries the spirit of “Madame,” for her influence certainly extends into our modern day lifestyle. If that is not a tremendous marriage of strength and style, I don’t know what else may be. Vive la Chanel.