Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, 1920

From gold buttons to comfortable tailored trousers and comfortable cardigan sweaters, there is no more significant influence on clothes than Coco Chanel.

Born in Saumur, France in 1883 this outspoken independent woman remains the most influential fashion designer of the 20th century. She alone is responsible for the then revolutionary notion that women’s clothes should be practical, easy to move in, understated yet elegant.

Her most famous statement: “It is not the dress that should wear the woman, but the woman who should wear the dress.”

Built more like a skinny boy than a woman, Coco Chanel opened her first shop in Deauville, France at a time when dress codes ran to the stiff high collars and stiff petticoats of the late nineteenth century.

 Anne Fontaine Coco avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel) 2009
Anne Fontaine Coco avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel) 2009

Heavily influenced by classic English men’s clothes, Chanel championed English tweeds, flannels, navy blazers, crisp white shirts, leather knits and pared down dinner jackets. In 1924, she created the flawlessly tailored – and widely, widely copied – Chanel suit.

Coco Chanel was first to introduce pants for women, the “little black dress,” strapless dresses, gold chain belts, crisp white shirts, jersey dresses, quilted handbags and the signature slingback spectator pump with black tips.

Further underscoring timeless comfort and simplicity, she introduced the twin-set, cardigan suits, men’s black tie evening clothes for women, the turtleneck sweater, the blazer and the signature scarf.

Chanel suit and silk blouse with two-tone pumps, 1965
Chanel suit and silk blouse with two-tone pumps, 1965

Coco Chanel herself was the among the first to crop her hair, shorten her skirt and wear costume jewellery boldly.

This maverick didn’t go unheralded. In the 1920’s and 30’s, she was the toast of Paris. Diaghilev, Picasso and Salvador Dali were friends. Jean Cocteau, another friend, believed that by some miracle, Chanel managed to apply to fashion the rules which seemed to be relevant only to painting, poetry and music. Like the best painting, what looks simple and elegant is the most difficult.

In 1924, Chanel also introduced Chanel No. 5, among the world’s best selling fragrances. At the time fragrance was not considered a fashion accessory.

“Perfume is a part of you,” Chanel said. “No elegance is possible without it.”

The story of Chanel No. 5 is well known in fashion circles. Chanel asked Ernest Beaux, a great perfumer of the day. to develop potential fragrances. He did so, putting the potions in bottles labelled by number. Chanel chose bottle number five.

“Why not simply Chanel No.5?” she said when looking for a name.

Signature scent of the House of Chanel, Chanel No. 5
The signature scent of the House of Chanel, Chanel No. 5

As famous as her scent is her packaging. Like the clothes, the black and white packaging became a timeless classic.

Coco Chanel introduced two more fragrances and opened boutiques in Europe.

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