Chanel had such an impact on fashion not only from the beginning but then intersected major designers all her life. Understanding and studying the history of Chanel brings about so much understanding of fashion and why it is where it is, and why her effect was so far-reaching. It’s going to be hard in this post to keep from over-using words like important, and valuable and even controversial, because that’s basically what impact designers are.
And therein lies the first impact – how controversial Chanel was. Other designers who have taken this plunge into creative like Marc Jacobs in his S/S 1993 fashion show at Perry Ellis for which he was fired. This was the first time the unkempt look of the street made it onto the runway, and it had a profound effect for which lasted almost 20 years. The same effect John Galliano had in S/S 2011 RTW when he introduced a new silhouette. Of course, it was lost a bit because Galliano did such extravagant and important shows one after the other at Dior, that this show was lost. His horrible outbursts which led to his dismissal at Dior overshadowed all his beautiful work at Dior. Zac Posen, who was from the very start a prodigy and like a lot of people who are thrust into a more notorious profile, had to have some time to adjust but came back big time with his F/W 2014 when he made his comeback doing what he does best. This may not have looked as controversial as Marc Jacobs @ Perry Ellis, or John Galliano’s new silhouette, but having fallen from grace and looking like his talent was a one-shot effort, this comeback was very significant.
So Chanel started this controversial leap of faith into fashion at the very beginning with her emphasis on jersey fabric. Men were wearing it, why not women. During World War I, other fabrics were in huge demand and rationed, while jersey was readily available and considered a throw-away or lesser fabric to use rather than the more popular woven fabrics that were made into more structured garments (think Downton Abbey)!
Here is Gabrielle Chanel wearing one of Coco’s jersey outfits. Notice the shoes already noting Chanel’s tendency toward a capped toe contrast which is a Chanel classic today. Jerseys were comfortable to wear, required less seaming, and of course was cheap and easily accessible when Chanel started her design business, but even after her maison became profitable she used them again and again. So Chanel was the very first designer to incorporate stretch into her designs. Today it’s hard to find a design or garment that doesn’t have stretch, so you can thank Chanel for that.
Audrey was obviously one of the most important proponents of the LBD, but she nor Givenchy (who did a lot of her clothes in movies and in real life), started this iconic look.
Here is the original LBD with the sketch from none other than Chanel.
Chanel also lived a controversial lifestyle from her first love who was a wealthy textile merchant, Étienne Balsan, who help set her up in her first millinery shop in Paris. She continued this affair until she met a much wealthier Englishman, Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel who helped set her up with two shops one in Deauville and another in Biarritz. She paid him back all the money he invested in the two shops. She was rumored to have affairs with both Duke of Westminister and the Prince of Wales (not at the same time) until World War II broke out and she closed her shop completely. During this time, (talk about risky), she took up with a German soldier who was a low-level intelligence officer in the German army. Here things get rather speculative (she really did live with him which is not under speculation), but as to what happened beyond that is conjecture. After the war, she was arrested for consorting with the Germans during the war. But before the trial began, Winston Churchill and the Duchess of Windsor interceded and the charges were dropped. So what really happened during World War II?….was Chanel a spy for the Allied forces?…did Chanel know something that would be detrimental to the English?…was she a spy at all?…did she know the embarrassing and incriminating information in regards to members of the Royal British family? Who knows, but all of that is probable. She would have easily been in a position to give information to her friends and even former lovers in England as a counterspy, at the same time she would have been privy to information that the Duke of Westminster, who was known to favor the German leadership, which would have been detrimental the British Royal family. No one knows for sure how she felt, what she did or even if she did conspire with the defeated enemy. After her release from the French authorities, she told her niece that “Churchill go her off” and she moved to Switzerland continuing her affair with Dincklage and thought she would live out the rest of her life in peace in Switzerland.
That doesn’t finish the iconic jump-off-the-cliff style fashion that Chanel was known for throughout her career, but there are other aspects to her fashion as well. Chanel was constantly working toward a freer look for her clothes – clothes that were not only flattering but much more comfortable. Before World War II, fashion was dominated by women designers designing for women. Her most notorious rival, Elsa Schiaparelli who was known for her classic, straight-forward designs with a touch of artistic pop to them. They were ground-breaking in the 20’s and all the rage. The styles were classic and easy to wear but were modern and ground-breaking. The styles were so classic, that as conflict broke out in Europe and fabrics became harder to get, this style became the iconic look for World War II fashion. This style became so standardized that from the early 20’s to the mid 40’s this was the look coming out of fashion. It was practical, economical, and yet had a little dash to it which made it last for 25 years. The only other style to last as long has been the Grunge look which started in 1992, with Marc Jacobs infamous show through the 2010’s – almost 25 years, only to be rethought if not slowly pushed aside by the silhouette first seen in 2011 by John Galliano.
After World War II, fashion then was dominated by men, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Robert Piguet, and Jacques Fath. The fashion capital of the world had moved from Paris to New York because of the German occupation of Paris and the constant threat bombing and invasion to London. After the war, the Paris Haute Couture industry wanted the fashion capital moved back to Paris and were willing to fight for it. Of course, New York wasn’t willing to let up. Enter Christian Dior and the rest was history.
What was so innovative about the suit was it was a completely different profile from the old Schiaparelli profile. The skirt took yards and yards and yards of fabric. A complete banishment of the World War II rations – use as much fabric as it took. Although the Bar Suit, above, was the main thing that historians remember, it was the other gowns that made the whole collection so important.
These gowns were so representative of what Dior did in that 1947 collection. He made it clear that rationing and doing without was over. France and the Allies were victors and time to enjoy being the victor even though a lot of their country was demolished, time to enjoy life and Dior represented that. There is a great series on Netflix out called The Collection that really shows the power this 1947 collection from Dior had on the fashion industry and on the psychology of the times. Europe had been through a prolonged horrible war for almost a whole decade and the rest of the world for five years, and Dior almost by himself said, tough times were over and time to celebrate. Not everyone could afford these styles. As a result, RTW fashion, that was affordable for almost everyone, was created alongside this couture business so that everyone could wear these new styles. Not only did RTW start up about this time, but the home sewists was offered patterns of this new silhouette so that virtually anyone could afford these new styles.
Dior continued that silhouette for 15 more years, when out of the depths of the background comes Chanel. At 70 years old, she felt it was time to open her salon again in Paris and design clothes. She was appalled at the cinched-in, artificially thin waistline that was as uncomfortable as it was out of proportion. She felt someone had to offer a look and style that was not only comfortable and easy to wear, but also flattering….and who should champion that better than a female.
In 1956 she introduced the infamous Chanel jacket and suit. It was based on the Austrian traditional jacket worn by the mountain natives and made from boiled wool, commonly known as the Geiger jacket. The Chanel jacket, however, was lined and finished and not as rough as the Austrian jacket. The Chanel jacket also had trim on the front, collar/neckline, pockets with distinctive jewelry-type buttons on the jacket. Chanel’s idea was that you wear the jacket and don’t need any other jewelry.
The original collection in 1956 was panned by the European press, and the European customer boycotted her clothes. It was the American press and the American customer that bought and praised the collection. They literally brought her back, mostly because the press and customers saw how comfortably elegant the clothes were and what a genius she was to create something so innovative.
The jacket was so classically designed and so well built, that it has survived today in an updated form and in demand as much now as it was in 1956.
For those of you haven’t seen one or made one, it is a fascinating jacket. Making the jacket not only gives you a beautiful garment to wear but is an insight into the genius behind the construction and innovative combination of techniques to create such a comfortable yet flattering design. First, it’s soft and yet has shape and hangs well on the body. It is luxurious, however it also comfortable, unlike most luxurious items that you purchase. It becomes your best friend the first time you put it on. It is an amazing garment in itself. It’s constructed by taking a very loosely woven, knobby-yarned fabric and then stabilizing it by quilting a silk charmeuse or otherwise smooth fabric, usually in a dramatic print, then attaching the fabric pieces together, and hand stitching the lining pieces together. Then adding trim usually made from the knobby yard of the woven fabric and often with the addition of other color blended yards. In this jacket I made for my sister, I reversed the jacket fabric to make the binding, and added a gorgeously braided trim in between the binding and the jacket. To that added typical gold buttons on the cuff, front, and the pockets. The jacket is so light that it needs a nice weight at the bottom, so Chanel added a gold chain to weight it and cause it to hang correctly. All these details make you not only appreciate the technique but also the care in the development of the techniques to cause the jacket to hang correctly, to move correctly on the body, to feel comfortable and to be elegant.
So let’s review that again. How about a piece of clothing that:
That’s a pretty tall order for a garment, but Chanel did it. What’s even more amazing (as in the New Yorker magazine cover above) that the style was so classic, Karl Lagerfeld took the style and merely updated it and made the jacket pertinent and hot again. So that the grande dame of art patrons in New York, Brooke Astor to the flashy, nouveau riche pop star, Beyonce.
The jacket is so classic and wearable in almost any occasion that it is timeless and defines the garment whether it’s with jeans or a $200,000 dress of beaded elegance. This is the gift that Chanel’s brilliance left to us in her later years when she re-opened her shop in Paris. Today is occupied by Karl Lagerfeld who does a masterful job of keeping the house not only profitable but one of the top fashion houses in the world. There is hardly a person out there who would not love to own a Chanel jacket.
Of course the fabulous thing for we sewists is that not only can we actually make this jacket, but we can make it in the style we like – you like short jackets, they look best on you-you can have one; you like long jackets, they look best on you-you can have one; you like blue jackets – you can have it; you like orange jackets – you can have it; you like a jacket styled a certain way – you can have it! Additionally, not all Chanel jackets are made the same or even quilted. The RTW versions are beautiful and have the trademark “CC” logo. However hardly any of them are quilted, and if they are lined, it is usually with a very lightweight chiffon or crepe lining. They are almost always in polyester. Although they are the light-weight fabric that is traditionally used for the jackets, they are not that stable, as the lining fabric is never quilted to the jacket fabric as in the couture model. These retail approximately $6,000 currently with probably $100 in fabric in the jacket and certainly not the labor and time spent in the assembly that the couture, quilted jacket requires. The couture jacket runs approximately $20,000 and usually cannot be purchased off the rack, but only from Paris, but is fitted to you….of course, that’s if you don’t sew!
Today, you can make a Chanel-type jacket for yourself that is built to fit you (not skin tight, but fit you) and yet has the comfortable yet the more shaped style of our time. Her jacket was innovative in 1956, but Karl Lagerfeld has taken that design and using the same couture techniques created a much more modern piece. He still uses the beautiful jewelry-type buttons, and the very complex braided, knitted or otherwise woven trims. The buttons may be hard to find, but the braid is what makes the jacket.
It can be as simple as braiding or twisting some of the yarns of the jacket together, or as complicated as crocheting or knitting complementary yarns and strips of the fabric together. The lady who makes the trim for the couture jackets in Paris has made them for decades even for Coco herself. She is an eccentric farmer who lives outside Paris, and above the barn is her shop where she extracts the yarns and weaves, interweaves, knits, or otherwise combines the trims to make the elegant trims that don each couture jacket. As Karl Lagerfeld has quoted (paraphrased here), almost anyone can make a jacket (and this is true – it does take a lot of time, but the techniques are basic), but it is the trim that makes the true Chanel jacket. And this is also true. The jacket trim that is purchased in the store is a great place to start and that would have been something that Coco Chanel would have used on her original jackets. But today the trim is the most important part and can delineate a happy-hands-from-home jacket from a couture garment.
No matter what age or background, wearing the jacket has always been a sign of elegance and style. Above left, counterclockwise are Rihanna, Queen Elizabeth, Marie-Hélène Arnaud photographed for Vogue in 1958, Chanel in her atelier, Chanel in her trademark pearls, me in my Chanel jacket, Little lemonade Susie in her successful Chanel jacket and center Jackie Kennedy on the day her husband died in her pink Chanel suit.
Chanel impacted fashion all her life, most notably as a designer who wanted women to look beautiful, be comfortable, elegant and flattering in her clothes. She did not believe that fashion had to be restrictive nor rigid for women. At the same time, women didn’t need to wear gunny sacks to be comfortable. This is a lesson that fashion could use today. It seems that RTW offers 2 types of fashion: 1.) three-sizes-too-small-stretched-over-every-ripple-of-your-body style and 2.) baggy-to-fit-any-shape-with-no-flattering-lines style. Chanel knew and built styles that were neither baggy nor restrictive, and yet they were elegant and comfortable. Chanel developed innovative styles, fabrics, trims, and most of all techniques to make her garments truly timeless. Once you have made a Chanel jacket, you will wear it for the rest of your life.
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