COCO CHANEL: The Woman Ahead of Her Time

The history behind the woman who revolutionized simple elegance.

CHANEL is a label that has been internationally recognized for decades, known for the famous quilted bag and tweed jacket. What is lesser known about Chanel is the woman behind it, Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel and her passion for empowering women through what they wear. She was able to break the boundaries between men’s and women’s-wear with her innovative synthesis of unconventional materials and modernist styles, thus starting a fashion revolution.

Coco Chanel began as a milliner in 1910, where she opened a shop at the now famous 21 rue Cambon in Paris, France where her esteemed career began. She first became recognized for her design talents when a famous theater actress modeled Chanel’s hats in the celebrated play, Bel Ami, in 1912. Following her success in the hat making industry, she then expanded her business to clothing designed for the modern woman.

Chanel pursued her design career while keeping both comfort and aesthetic in mind. Her use of nontraditional fabrics distinguished her from other designers of the time along with her practical yet elegant style. In doing so, Chanel was able to break the tradition of impractical women’s apparel while empowering them at the same time.

Unlike the traditional fabrics designers used at the time, Gabrielle Chanel used jersey and tricot, a fabric that was typically used for men’s undergarments. One of the reasons for her use of these more relaxed sorts of fabrics was because she could not afford to design clothes using expensive the textiles worn by the upper class at the time. She was able to make typically lower class materials appealing to all women, especially those of the upper class. Chanel was a true modernist; she focused on innovative aesthetics and fashionable practicality rather than the unnecessary frills that can easily overwhelm women’s fashion.

With the early twentieth century came a new sense of women’s empowerment. Female designers began to appear–Elsa Schiaparelli, and of course Coco Chanel–and made a name for themselves not only in fashion, but in society and culture as well. As the silhouettes changed, women began to dress more practically. Chanel can be attributed to “the capacity to perceive and insist on something more fundamental behind the ornament of conventional appearance” (Driscoll 140). She looked at fashion in a more sensible way in which previous designers had not. Chanel was influenced by the leisure and sports she observed women participating in while vacationing at Deauville, France. With these active women in mind, Chanel “devised a system of dress founded on basic elements, including full and comparatively short skirts, open collar blouses, simple sweaters, and loose-belted jackets—all designed to allow activity while retaining a sense of sophistication” (Davis 432).

Much of Chanel’s success can be attributed to the emergence of the ‘ready-to-wear’ trend. Ready-to-wear is basically a fashion term meaning clothing you can buy off the rack then wear right away. Catherine Driscoll argues, “Chanel stands for the pre-war experimentation with these conventionally masculine fabrics, later extending to others like corduroy and tweed and this new medium consciously inverted the gender and class distinctions that had been central to fashionable style” (Driscoll 143). With her influence, “cardigans and trench coats became fashionable accessories, loose fitting trousers became glamorous rather than a practical necessity, and costume jewelry became a desirable dressed-down look” (Driscoll 143). Her popularization of the dressed down style became a staple for women in Western culture, as it allowed them certain freedoms that had previously been unavailable.

Chanel’s ability to incorporate non-traditional materials into fashionable staples for women is what has set her apart from other designers around her. She was able to empower women through her designs while lessening the contrast between class definitions. Fashion became a form of self expression that allowed women to assert themselves into the patriarchal society which had governed culture for countless centuries prior. Social and economic differences could be easily distinguished through the clothes that women wore, and still typically are, associated with fashion. Chanel designed clothes in a way that focused on the fundamental elements of an outfit, therefore emphasizing elegance through the styling. This philosophy can be applied universally since “there was not, in fact, one Chanel look, but there were some unwavering Chanel principles. Understatement was one, reinforcing a shift in the important distinction between day and evening wear and the shift in the important distinction between day and evening wear and the role of particular fabrics in articulating wealth and the conspicuousness of fashion consumption” (Driscoll 143). The ‘Chanel look’ emulated modernism and simplicity while connection art, consumer culture and leisure to form a new modern identity.

After World War I ended, the European population had become aware of the necessity of financial cutbacks, thus popularizing Chanel’s simplistic designs. “Chanel’s ‘poor look’…was radical enough to be referred to as an ‘antifashion posture’… reversing the systemic copying of the upper classes by the lower, which… was structurally characteristic of fashion” (Driscoll 143). The shift from elitist, bourgeois flashiness to minimalist, simple elegance truly took hold at the height of Chanel’s career, during the modernist period when art shifted to a deeper focus in innovation and simplicity.

For Chanel, any woman could be fashionable. Her emphasis on styling made it so that even someone in a lower class could assemble a glamorous outfit, regardless of how much each piece cost. “The use of the low and poor translates the mobility of Chanel into mobility across social contexts, as her use of men’s fabrics and reference to men’s tailoring translated into some mobility between genre norms” (Driscoll 144). Chanel was able to put women on a level with men that they had never been done before, and as a result, empowered women to obtain the social recognition that they had lacked for so long. Her progressive and functional designs enabled women to experience the same freedom of movement and comfort that is predominant in mens clothing.  She was able to transform the feminine identity as “her designs came to be viewed as emblematic of social change and shifts in attitude [which brought about] greater freedoms for women following” World War I (Davis 433).

It is the simple sophistication that Gabrielle Chanel pioneered which brought the brand to become the powerhouse that it is today. Rather than relying on intricately patterned fabrics and complex designs, it was her tasteful styling that brought her to the front stage of early twentieth century design. Her idea of the ‘active woman’ exemplified the “the spirit of modernity and futurism” (Driscoll 146). Because of her advanced awareness of fashion and trends, the double C logo is recognizable anywhere as the famous couturier’s signature logo, even if it’s unfortunately a counterfeit found in Chinatown.


Works Cited:

Davis, Mary. “Chanel, Stravinsky, And Musical Chic.” Fashion Theory: The Journal Of Dress, Body & Culture 10.4 (2006): 431-460. Art & Architecture Complete. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.

Driscoll, Catherine. “Chanel: The Order Of Things.” Fashion Theory: The Journal Of Dress, Body & Culture 14.2 (2010): 135-158. Art & Architecture Complete. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.


Photo: Man Ray

Chanel with cigarette,1935
© VG Bildkunst Bonn, 2014, and Man Ray Trust

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