Everyone who knows the Chanel brand and has heard the name Coco Chanel. You probably know her famous fashion advice about always taking one thing off before you leave the house. Unless you’ve read one of the books or watched one of the films (of which there are many) about Gabriel “Coco” Chanel, you may not realize what a pioneer the designer was. Some say that she didn’t just change fashion, but she helped change the world.
Coco got her start in fashion when she opened up a hat shop in 1910 on the now famous Rue Cambon in Paris. She became a favorite designer for actresses and soon opened a new boutique.
Coco had become known for her simple style, but in 1913, she released a sportswear collection that completely changed the way women dressed. In the previous decades, women’s clothes were very cumbersome. It was about opulence, not practicality (remember the houppelande?). Corsets were commonplace, as were multiple layers of clothing for a single outfit. Coco was the first to create a collection out of jersey, a fabric that, until then, had only ever been used for men’s underwear. The soft, stretchy material was the antithesis of the fabrics that were popular at the time. The easy, fluid silhouettes made of the comfortable fabric were an instant hit. No longer were women confined by restrictive corsets. Sportswear was an unheard of category in women’s fashion and Coco put it firmly on the map.
Coco continued to borrow from the boys, sometimes literally. She helped popularize wearing pants for woman at a time when dresses and skirts were the only options, save for during the war when they wore them to do jobs. Coco wore men’s sailor trousers to the beach instead of a swimsuit. Furthermore, she borrowed male jockey’s pants when she was riding a horse as she stated there was no comfortable way to do it in a skirt. Many women started adopting the style into their own wardrobes instead of skirts.
The iconic Chanel suit also drew inspiration from menswear. Coco discovered tweed on trips to Scotland with the Duke Of Westminster in 1924. The fabric was traditionally used for men’s clothing, but Coco appropriated into a boxy jacket and skirt for women. The style remains a pillar of the House Of Chanel to this day.
Coco had gained a reputation for simple, easy-to-wear clothes, and in 1926, she changed fashion with her little black dress. Vivid colors were popular at the time, especially among designers like Elsa Schiaparelli. Black was reserved for mourning. Coco preferred white and black to the saturated hues. Vogue published a sketch of her calf-length LBD and declared it a dress everyone would wear, comparing it to Henry Ford’s Model T car.
You can thank Coco for the abundance of costume jewelry now available. There was a market for costume jewelry before Coco started layering multiple accessories over her simple jerseys in the 1930’s, but fake stones were for those who couldn’t afford the real thing. Coco helped popularize fake pearls and oversize gemstones with wealthy clients. She reasoned it was better to layer costume jewels than to be restricted to one or two real pieces.
Coco didn’t only change fashion, she helped change the beauty industry too. She released the iconic Chanel No. 5 way back in 1921. It was developed by perfumer Ernest Beaux. She was not the first designer to release a scent. Paul Poiret was the first but Coco put her name on the bottle, unlike Paul. Another fragrance, No. 22 followed the next year and in 1924 she launched her makeup line featuring powders and lip colors. The skin care line launched in 1927 with 15 products.
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