Behind the Seams: How Coco Chanel Changed Fashion Forever

Karen Alfonso
Coco Chanel | Image collect/ Roloff Benny/Globe Photos
Coco Chanel | Image collect/ Roloff Benny/Globe Photos

They are some brands that stand the test of time. Chanel is one such brand, synonymous with luxury and high fashion. Currently under the wing of German born designer Karl Lagerfeld, the brand continues to exert its outsized influence on the way we dress. But it all started with the unlikely vision and drive of one remarkable woman, who surmounted all the odds to leave her mark on the world. Here is a profile of one of fashion’s true icons, Coco Chanel, the story of how she changed fashion forever.

Early Beginnings:

Coco Chanel had a far from perfect childhood. She was born to an unwed mother Eugénie “Jeanne” Devolle (an absolute sin during those times). Her father Albert Chanel worked as a salesman selling undergarments and work outfits. The couple eventually married later and went on to have five children. Christened Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, her name was misspelt in the registry as Chasnel.  Tragedy struck when Coco was 12-years old, and her mother died of bronchitis.  Unable to look after his children, Albert sent his daughters to the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary, an institution that looked after rejected and poor children.  It was here that she picked up her seamstress skills that eventually lead to start her fashion line.  At age 18, she eventually left since she was deemed too old to stay at the convent.

She started performing at the cabaret but soon went bust. She became romantically involved with Etienne Balsan, and he funded her venture into fashion. Her first store opened in 1910 in Paris’ 31 Rue Cambon (which now serves at Chanel’s HQ)

Contribution to Fashion:

Coco’s contribution to fashion has had a large sociological impact. In a society where women wore severely restricting corsets, Chanel introduced flowy silhouettes and started the trend of wearing trousers.  She’s been known to give us the first ever designer bag and perfume. She introduced the concept of skirt suits and the tweed jacket and the little black dress. Can you imagine our wardrobes without these items?

Watch this film by Chanel starring Kiera Knightley as Coco launching her first ever boutique in Deauville.

Chanel No. 5

Chanel was the first person to attach her name to a fragrance, which was created by French-Russian chemist Ernest Beuax. She wanted it to reflect the modern woman of that time. It was named so because of Coco’s great affinity to the numeral five.  She launched her new collections on the 5th of May.

Marilyn Monroe once famously declared that she wore “nothing, but a few drops of Chanel No. 5 to bed.” Decades later, in 2013, Monroe became the face of the signature perfume. Previous faces have been Nicole Kidman (who starred in the world’s most expensive commercial for it), French actress Audrey Tatou (who played Chanel in the film Coco Avant Chanel) and Brad Pitt.

Chanel 2.55

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The iconic quilted bag Chanel 2.55  adorns the arms of Royalty, Hollywood and Bollywood celebs. It is THE It bag, named so because of the month and year of conceptualization (Feburary 2, 1955). Did you know the it came about because Coco grew tired of holding her bag and wanted something that could keep her hands free? The signature quilted pattern was inspired by the cushions in her apartment and jockeys riding uniforms.

Breton Stripes:

Breton stripes are almost always spotted on the runway, but it was Chanel who turned it into high fashion. While vacationing in Brittany in the south of France, she noticed sailors sporting these blue and white striped t-shirts. She soon adopted the motif into her collections and the rest is fashion history.

Costume Jewellery & skirt suit

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At that time, real jewellery was considered a sign of wealth. Coco changed all of that by sporting strands of fake pearls. She also introduced the skirt suit – which has now become synonymous with powerful women and can be spotted anywhere from the White House to boardrooms around the world. The jacket was made out of Tweed, a fabric that was rough and generally associated with men. The collarless jacket was paired with a pencil skirt. These days, celebs like Beyonce pair their jackets with anything from shorts to jeans.

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The Little Black Dress

Audrey Hepburn may have made the LBD popular but it was Chanel who was credited for creating the little black dress. She published a picture of it in fashion bible Vogue back in 1926 and till date it remains an essential favourite among women.

Memorable Quotes:

A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.

Fashion fades, only style remains the same.

Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman, there is no dress.

As long as you know men are like children, you know everything!

Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.

Elegance does not consist in putting on a new dress.