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Life And Style Of Coco Chanel

Updated on August 20, 2009

One Of Time Magazine's "Most Influential People of the 20th Century".

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel once said that, "Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance." This one statement eloquently sums up the philosophy of the designer who revolutionized the way that women dressed. Coco Chanel rose from humble origins to become one of the most influential fashion designers the world has ever known. This is the fascinating life and style of Coco Chanel, the only designer to ever be named one of Time Magazine's "Most Influential People of the 20th Century".

Coco Chanel has long been an intriguing figure. She has been the subject of numerous books, films, and even a 1969 Broadway play starring Katharine Hepburn. The public's interest in Chanel shows no signs of waning; there is a new film entitled "Coco before Chanel" detailing the early life of the designer. Starring Audrey Tautou as the young Coco, the film is scheduled for a September 2009 release in the U.S. Other famous actresses, such as Shirley MacLaine, have also played the independent and bold fashion designer.

New Movie "Coco Before Chanel" Release 09/25/2009

From Orphan To Seamtress To Milliner

Born illegitimately in 1883 in a French poorhouse in the town of Saumer, Maine-et-Loire, Gabrielle Chanel was an unlikely choice to take the world of haute couture and high society by storm. After the death of her mother Jeanne Devolle when young Gabrielle was only twelve years old, her father Albert Chanel was forced to send her to a Catholic orphanage at the monastery in Aubazine, France to be reared. It was there that Mademoiselle Chanel learned the art of sewing, at the hands of the nuns who ran the orphanage. They tutored her in the trade of seamstress, and she learned fine finish sewing from the aunts who took her in during school breaks. From this inauspicious beginning, the determined young Chanel was to venture forth and create a fashion empire catering to the top of French, British, and American societies.

Coco Chanel was very much in tune with the new attitude of the early part of the 20th Century; in fact, she helped to create it. A fiery and strong character, Chanel was known to have highly useful liaisons with powerful men, but never married. After leaving the orphanage at age eighteen, she first worked as a seamstress for an atelier. It was not long, however, before the talented designer and seamstress met and fell in love with a French millionaire named Etienne Balsan, who gave her a taste of the good life: diamonds, pearl jewelry, and fabulous dresses.

It was clear early on that the ambitious Coco was destined for greater heights than doing someone else's sewing, and her wealthy boyfriends provided her with the financial backing necessary to realize her dreams. In 1910, Chanel opened her first shop called Chanel Modes at 21 Rue Cambon (it was later to relocate to 31 Rue Cambron, where it still lives today) in Paris, with funding from her beau Arthur Capel. Her first shop was a milliner's, creating fashionable hats for the upper crust. A second shop in Deauville, also funded by Capel, followed in 1913. She designed simple and sporty styles that were a stark departure from the grand Belle Epoch fashions previously worn by her wealthy clientele. By 1915, Harper's Bazaar recognized Chanel as one of the most sought after labels. She showed her first full haute couture collection in 1917, also to rave reviews by the fashion press and the discriminating shopper.

The Little Black Dress

Black Cocktail Dress
Black Cocktail Dress
1922 embroidered Chanel dress
1922 embroidered Chanel dress

The Little Black Dress Is Born

The clothing designed by Coco Chanel was truly revolutionary. She was insistent on abandoning the corset that confined women of the era, and creating styles more suited to a modern and active lifestyle. Chanel was responsible for a number of innovations, such as using menswear fabrics like woven wool and tweed for ladies, creating garments from a high quality jersey knit, and even originating the original "little black dress". Chanel firmly believed that women's clothing should be comfortable and functional. Above all, she felt that a woman should dress for herself, rather than to please men.

Her beliefs were perfectly in line with the emerging attitudes of the flappers of the 1920s. Coco Chanel was a modern and original thinker, who was not afraid to buck convention, just like the flappers. She excelled at creating the easy to wear pieces that were the hallmarks of the Jazz Age, such as shift dresses (no corsets required!), jersey knit sailor tops, and beaded dresses perfect for dancing the night away at a cocktail party in a speakeasy. Chanel espoused a sporty lifestyle for women, including sunbathing, tennis, and other outdoor pursuits that women of the previous generation would not have considered ladylike. Flappers drank, smoke, drove their own cars, and Chanel designed the clothing that made it easy for them to comfortably pursue their activities of choice, all while looking fabulous and chic.

Chanel Tweed Jacket And Handbag

Chanel No. 5 starring Nicole Kidman

Chanel Tweed Jacket And Chanel No 5

The iconic Chanel tweed jacket, which was invented in the 1920s, was one example of the way in which her designs were so different than those of her predecessors. The jacket was designed to give the wearer a freedom of movement that had never before been experienced while wearing such a garment. It was said to feel more like a comfy cardigan to wear, rather than a structured tailored jacket. The secrets were the silk lining, which was stitched directly to the outer fabric, the boxy cut, and the brilliant three-part construction of the sleeves, which allowed for much improved range of motion. Chanel designed her "cardigan jackets" using menswear fabrics like tweed, with signature details such as black trim and gold buttons. The classic Chanel suit, as it later evolved in the 1950s, also featured a matching knee length skirt. The remarkable thing about Chanel's novel tweed jacket is that the style has proved to be so enduring. Season after season, decade after decade, the Chanel suit continues to be one of the trademarks of good taste and style.

In 1921, Coco Chanel became the first to do something else that no other fashion designer had done before her, which was to create her own fragrance. Chanel No. 5 was released that year, and it has remained a bestseller ever since. There are a few stories surrounding the origin of the name "No. 5". Some say that when she had samples created for her new fragrance, she selected the fifth option that was presented to her. Others say that Chanel (who was known to be superstitious) considered five to be her lucky number. Whatever the background of the name, a few things are certain: Chanel chose the jasmine fragrance because it was the most costly perfume oil in the world at the time (it also became the keynote of the perfume Joy, which was launched by rival Jean Patou in 1929). Additionally, she deliberately chose a clean and modern line for the bottle, which was very distinctive at the time.

Chanel No. 5 has gone on to have a very illustrious history. The perfume has been advertised by some of the most beautiful women in the world, including Marilyn Monroe, Catherine Deneuve, Nicole Kidman, and Audrey Tautou (the actress who also plays Coco in the recent film). Some of the ad campaigns have been as interesting as the famous faces involved in them, such as the mini-film created featuring Nicole Kidman in 2004. The best advertisement ever for No. 5 had to have been the legendary quote by Marilyn Monoe; when asked what she slept in at night, she coyly replied, "Why, Chanel No. 5, of course"!


Coco Chanel In The !940s

Coco Chanel In Paris During WWII

Throughout the 1920s, Chanel saw her fashion empire and her influence grow. She gained connections to the British Royal family, and in 1927, opened her first London shop. Coco Chanel lived a glamorous life that must have seemed like an impossible dream to the destitute young Gabrielle who lived in an orphanage. By the late 1930s, she had a villa on the French Rivera, an apartment over her couture house at 31 Rue Cambron in Paris, and had taken up residence at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, where she lived on and off for thirty years.

            When World War II erupted in 1939, it brought the world created by Coco Chanel to a screeching halt. Believing that a war was the wrong time to promote fashion, she closed her business in 1939. From there, things took a turn that would leave a stain on the reputation of the ambitious Frenchwoman. Chanel remained in her Ritz apartment throughout World War II, even during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Always drawn to men in powerful positions, Coco entered a relationship with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, who was a German officer and a Nazi spy. It was this affair that made it possible for Chanel to stay on at the luxurious Ritz Hotel for the duration of the war. Following the war, Chanel was actually arrested for war crimes, but avoided prosecution thanks to her friends in the British aristocracy. As anyone seen as a Nazi sympathizer was persona non grata in France after the war, Chanel fled to neutral Switzerland in 1945.


VogueTV became one of the first camera crews ever allowed into Coco Chanel's very own apartment

Chanel Layered Pearls Look

Chanel Returns To Paris In 1954

Nine years later, in 1954, Chanel returned to Paris and to the fashion scene. She was appalled at the "New Look", which had been introduced by Christian Dior in 1947. Dior's small waisted, full busted, and crinolined dresses represented the antithesis of everything for which Chanel had stood. She recognized the style as a return to the restrictive fashions that had been in vogue back when she got her start. The House of Chanel re-opened featuring the comfortable and sporty designs for which Coco Chanel had always been famous, and provided ladies with a counterpoint to the nipped in New Look fashions. Her relaunch was a smash success with British and American customers, although the French were slower to warm up to Mme. Chanel, owing to her reputation as a Nazi sympathizer.

Some of Chanel's best known designs were launched during this era. Chanel had long been a fan of fabulously fake costume jewelry (as well as fine diamond pieces), and it was in the 1950s, that she began a collaboration with Swarovski, an Austrian company known for creating the world's finest crystals. Chanel declared that, "When you make imitation jewelry, you always make it bigger", and her signature necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and brooches support that belief. Chanel designed her jewelry collections, both costume and real, to coordinate with her clothing. The truly iconic Chanel look was the classic boxy tweed suit worn with layers of ropes of faux pearls and gold chains.

Chanel had many favorite motifs that were repeated in her jewelry designs. Oversized crosses, large faux pearls, gold tone chains, rosary style necklaces (she did, after all, grow up in a monastery orphanage), and plenty of camelias, which were her favorite flower. In addition to Swarovski crystal jewelry, many of the pieces were created from materials like  poured glass, and enamel. Military and Byzantine designs were also sources of inspiration. The frankly fake pieces designed by Chanel were another way of expressing her point of view that high fashion should still be sporty and wearable, rather than overly precious.

            Something else for which the House of Chanel is famous is the quilted leather handbag. The style was launched in February of 1955, and is just as popular today as it was when it was designed over fifty years ago. It is said that Coco was inspired by the quilted jackets worn by jockeys. She borrowed the idea of quilted leather for purses, as it made the material stronger and more durable. Chanel pieces may come with a hefty price tag, but they have always been built to last, both in terms of construction and timeless style. The gold chain handle on the quilted bag helped to seal its status as one of the most popular accessories of all time, and just happened to look fabulous when worn over one of Chanel's signature tweed suits with layered pearls and gold necklaces.


Coco Was Working The Day Before Her Death

Chanel was as driven as ever in the later years of her life. Throughout the 1960s, she continued to design the couture collections, oversee the running of the showroom, and even put the finishing touches on the models. She ran the flagship shop at 31 Rue Cambron in her usual intimidating yet elegant manner. Mademoiselle had very specific ideas on how things should be done, from the right color lipstick (red) to the way a hat should be worn (jauntily) to the scent of the showroom (No. 5, mais ouis). All the while, she was securing her legacy as one of the most influential women of the 20th Century, and one of the most revered arbiters of style the world has ever known. Chanel worked until the very day before her death from a heart attack on January 10, 1971. The collection was presented only a few weeks later, with over 1000 people in attendance. Hardworking, determined Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel would certainly have agreed that the show must go on.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Coco Chanel's designs is that they have stood the test of time. Her pieces are handed down from mother to daughter, and the signature bags, suits, and jewelry are highly collectible. Unlike some haute couture houses, the House of Chanel continued to thrive and grow after the death of its founder. It avoided the trap of watered down design or over-licensing that some of the formerly grand houses fell victim to. Coco Chanel had left her successors with such a clear vision that it was easy to continue coming up with fresh new designs that both kept pace with the times and respected the philosophy of its founder. This is fantastic news for women everywhere who are in need of stylish and functional luxury that will stand the test of time. Coco Chanel would definitely be proud to see the fashion empire that she built from nothing has also withstood the test of time, just like her revolutionary designs.


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