The French are synonymous with style worldwide, When we think French style however, what we’re probably thinking of can ultimately be laid at the feet of one designer – Coco Chanel. She revolutionised women’s fashion in the 20th century, more so than any other designer. While fashionistas might drape themselves in clothes bearing her label, we’re all wearing Chanel-inspired designs, whether we’re slipping on a little black dress or sporting a Breton shirt.
It’s hard to imagine what women’s fashion was like before Chanel – elaborate, burdensome, and restrictive to women’s freedom. Following her own dictum, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off”, she would free women from the bondage of corsets, even daring to shorten skirts so that ankles could be seen!
The little black dress would be perhaps Chanel’s most iconic contribution to fashion history. Previously a colour associated with mourning, Chanel would liberate black so that woman could wear it for its aesthetic qualities, to look like they meant business, rather than being weeping widows. While her revolutionary designs were elegant, they were also comfortable and practical, leading to their widespread success – indeed, the LBD would come to be known as the ‘Ford’ of women’s clothing.
Another radical move made by Chanel was to incorporate men’s tailoring into women’s outfits. In the 1920s, she borrowed a tweed suit from her partner at the time, the Duke of Westminster. She loved it so much she started producing tweeds for women, setting up a long-standing relationship with Linton tweeds in Carlisle, and a style still going strong today.
Perhaps her most scandalous move was to dare to put women in…trousers! While women had worn trousers for work purposes during World War 1, a lady would never be seen dead in them, until Chanel repurposed them for the female form, liberating women to play with traditionally masculine silhouettes.
She would also be the first designer to understand the power of branding, creating in 1921 her first perfume – Chanel No 5. This was the first fragrance ever to bear the name of a designer, associated with the number five because a fortune teller had told Chanel that this was her lucky number.
It’s easy to see how we’re wearing clothes that have been shaped by Chanel, even if they don’t bear her label. It really is Coco Chanel’s world we’re living in now. As the grande dame herself said, “Fashion fades, only style remains the same”.