Facets of Coco Chanel’s artistry examination

CO Chanel

Today, the term “designer” is too often associated with people who churn out clothing lines every season. In this sense, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel stands as a breed apart. Fashion analysts today attribute the birth of modern fashion to Coco Chanel. She is viewed as a woman and an artist ahead of her time. Her clothing influenced not only the way women dress, but the way women define femininity. In this sense, Chanel is very much a part of the modern artistic movement, along with the likes of Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau.

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This paper examines the many facets of Coco Chanel’s artistry. The first part of the paper looks at Chanel as a product of her social environment, discussing the factors that have contributed to the evolution of Chanel’s style and clothing designs. The next part then looks at Chanel’s designs and choice of fabrics. Chanel never defined herself as a feminist, but she created clothing that freed women from the constricting clothes of the Victorian era.

In this sense, she both reflected and contributed to the growing women’s liberation movement.

In the final section, the paper looks at two representative examples of Chanel’s enduring designs — the Chanel suit and the little black dress. It examines how these two articles of clothing have changed the way women dress, both for business and for special occasions.

This paper argues that Chanel contributed not only to the modern artistic movement, but also to the modern women’s movement. Through Chanel’s artistic creations — articulated in her fashion, clothing, and perfume — have allowed women to express their femininity in new, less constricting and more liberating ways.

The early years

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born on August 19, 1883 in Saumur, a small city in France. Chanel, however, did not have the benefit of growing up with a stable family life. Shortly after Chanel’s father abandoned his family, the children were raised by relatives and later, in an orphanage (“Gabrielle Chanel”).

It is difficult to reconstruct much of Chanel’s early life, largely because Chanel herself told conflicting stories regarding her past. The most that Chanel learned dressmaking either from strict aunts or from taking design courses in school. However, biographer Alex Madsen points out that this is fantasy. Instead, Chanel learned dressmaking from an orphanage, under the tutelage of nuns who raised her after her mother’s death. She later underwent a standard apprenticeship with a provincial dressmaker (Madsen 28).

Other biographers like Janet Wallach believe that these early years of deprivation fueled many of Chanel’s lifelong pursuits. She also capitalized on her combination of physical beauty, creativity and business acumen to gain wealthy boyfriends/patrons, men whom she euphemistically referred to as her “protectors” (Wallach).

From her early start as an apprentice and then later as a milliner, the young Coco would build what would eventually become one of the most influential houses of fashion.

Chanel’s route to being a fashion artist and icon took several detours. At age 17, Coco left her seamstress position in Moulins, a job which the sisters of the Aubazine orphanage helped secure for their former charge. Instead, Chanel embarked on a career as a cabaret singer. While singing, Chanel then met Etienne Balsan, a wealthy playboy who financed her move to Paris and her first business — a hat shop (Sischy). These fashionable hats were Chanel’s humble start in the fashion business.

For people who view Coco Chanel as a feminist icon, it is difficult to reconcile the image of independence with Chanel’s series of protectors. After Etienne Balsan, Chanel then had an affair with Arthur Capel, who is widely-regarded the love of her life. The wealthy Capel bankrolled Chanel’s career further, financing her expansion to clothing. Capel also helped Coco open shops in Paris, as well as the resort towns of Deauville and Biarritz (Sischy).

These personal and financial relationships allowed Coco Chanel to establish her name in the world of fashion. More importantly, financial solvency allowed Chanel more freedom to further challenge prevailing fashion dictates and to create her own vision. These new designs involved not only fresh and original styles, but also the use of innovative material, revolutionizing the way women express themselves through their clothing.

Early innovations (1909-1920)

From the very beginning, Coco Chanel was a maverick who was challenging the dictates of prevailing style. First of all, she became a designer at a time when all other important couturiers were men. Furthermore, Chanel enjoyed many pursuits that were considered “improper” for young ladies at the turn of the 20th century. For example, Coco enjoyed sports like horseback riding and other outdoor activities. As a result of her athleticism, she also had a slender and muscular silhouette that looked boyish, a further departure from the Victorian female ideal (Dunn).

Even the earliest designs already represented innovations from the prevailing styles. Chanel’s hats, for example, were far simpler than the extravagant and complicated headgear of the early 1900s. While fashionable hats were stiff, unwieldy and ostentatious, Chanel hats were soft and simple. They conformed to the shape of a woman’s head and were often devoid of the flowers and other decorations that festooned traditional women’s headgear (Wallach).

Many of the early innovations Coco Chanel made continue to influence today’s fashion styles. The clean hats were only the beginning of Chanel’s move towards simplicity. By the beginning of World War I, Chanel felt the need to further update the remaining constrictive clothing styles of the post-Victorian era. The corseted and other constrictive clothing styles proved highly-impractical for working women. This became more evident for the women who took over the factory jobs vacated by men who were called to military service.

In answer, Chanel crafted what became known as the “working costume” for working women. She eschewed hoops, crinoline and the traditional ballooning Victorian silhouettes for simple, straight-cut jersey dresses in black fabric. For alternative, Chanel also drew on menswear for inspiration. She crafted straight skirts, sailor jackets and men’s pull-over sweaters (Dunn).

During the early 20th century, the idea that women should dress for comfort rather than ostentation was by itself a revolutionary idea. As with many revolutionary ideas, many people — women especially — were leery of the new designs and silhouettes. However, in a few years, women embraced the idea of comfortable clothes, and the fluid “Chanel look” had become the norm.

The simplicity of Chanel’s design philosophy was also echoed in one of her most celebrated creations — the Chanel No. 5 perfume. The name of the perfume itself was detached and without any frills. It was the first perfume to ever bear its designer’s name. Furthermore, the perfume was contained in an Art Deco bottle with clean, rectangular lines. In contrast, most of the French perfumes of this day were contained in ornate bottles (Sischy).

The Chanel designs of the 1920s also represent important developments regarding the role of women in fashion design. Prior to Chanel and other female designers, many male designers created female clothes that were oriented to masculine audiences. Female clothing was thus designed to please whoever was viewing the woman in the dress (Hollander 135). In this sense, women’s clothing was made for the eye of the beholder.

Chanel’s designs introduced the concept that women should enjoy their clothing as well. In addition to the simpler silhouettes and the absence of constrictive undergarments, Chanel also believes that clothes should have a tactile dimension. The material itself must “feel” good (Hollander 135). For these reasons, Chanel turned to silky and clingy fabrics rather than the stiff boning and heavy cloths of Victorian-era dresses.

Another important innovation was Coco Chanel’s audience. While many couturiers catered to elite, upper-class women, Chanel catered her designs to working women. The very reason for her silhouette was to allow women to move. Furthermore, Chanel was also comparatively conscious of expenses.

In terms of accessories like jewelry, Coco moved away from status pieces and used over-the-top costume jewelry (Sischy).

Through her clothes, Chanel helped to usher in the 1920s new feminine ideal. Instead of focusing on clothes that changed a woman’s shape, Coco Chanel created a style that defined femininity in terms of youthfulness, sexuality and energy. These were clothes that allowed women to move and be active. In many respects, such clothing embodied the images of the strong, independent young women that would be in vogue decades later.

The second wave

If she had retired in the 1930s, Chanel would have already secured her position as one of the influential fashion designers of the 20th century. However, Chanel emerged from retirement after World War II to once again challenge prevailing fashion trends, and to re-establish the idea of comfortable clothing designed to allow for both comfort and movement.

In 1947, designer Christian Dior released his first “New Look” collection. The designs of these Dior clothes harked back curiously to the designs of Victorian dresses. The Dior collection sparked a trend towards hourglass shapes and full skirts. The waists were once again cinched-in, to conform to the style of the dress (Dunn).

Dissatisfied with this “New Look,” Coco Chanel emerged from retirement and, at age 71, returned to design. The result was one of the most enduring of all Chanel designs — the Chanel suit. Her focus was to create clothing that was comfortable for the wearer and still pleasing to the eye of the beholder (Haedrich, p.18).

Chanel’s first anti-New Look suit was made of heavy wool jersey in navy blue. This 1954 collection was not well-received in Europe, and some analysts attribute this to the designer’s known anti-Semitism and her affair with a Nazi officer during the German occupation.

Chanel’s reputation, however, was not as tainted across the Atlantic Ocean. In the United States, women rallied around Chanel’s second collection. Unlike the cinched-in, hourglass shapes of the Dior collection, the new Chanel jacket were crafted from lighter, more comfortable fabrics like silk and tweed. A gold chain hidden inside the jacket’s waist served to weigh the jacket down. Chanel also had a ribbon sewn into the waistband of the skirt to keep a shirt from coming untucked. These hidden touches contributed to a neater and refined look that still allowed women to move. A side-zipper, another innovation, made getting dressed an easier process (Sischy).

By the late 1960s, the Chanel suit was a uniform again, in the same way the black jersey dresses were a uniform for working women in the 1920s. However, there was a major difference. Chanel suits were now much more expensive. After emerging from retirement, the first collections were couture collections. They were thus limited to wealthy women who could afford trips to Paris for fittings, on top of the prices of the suits themselves.

However, by 1978, the House of Chanel went to the designer’s roots once again by offering the suit as part of . The challenge, however, was to manufacture a suit that embodied both the design and the quality of an original Chanel couture while being more affordable for working women. The results of their efforts are suits that embody Chanel’s original design and materials. Though these suits still sell for $3,000, this price represents a fraction of what such a suit would cost in its haute couture version.

Spirit of change

The 20th century was a decade of much social changes. It saw the decline of a strict class system in the United States and in Western Europe. It also saw the dawn of the feminist movement, as women shed the restraints of their clothing and of socially-imposed norms.

Part of Coco Chanel’s innovations was that clothes should be free of “ludicrous trimmings and fussy bits and pieces” (cited in Warner). This simplicity meant that the woman — rather than the clothing and accessories — would take center stage. This represented an important step in feminism, because prior to working outside the home, women were mostly confined to the dome and limited to domestic duties. The lack of ornamentation of Chanel’s fashion meant that clothing only served as a backdrop to its wearer. Considering the prevailing attitudes of the time, this idea was itself revolutionary.

Second, Chanel did not focus her attention solely on elite women. She began by designing clothes for working women. Towards this, she used “ignoble” fabrics like wool and jersey, and she legitimized the use of costume jewelry.

In addition, Chanel demanded that clothing should allow a woman to move and be active. Instead of forcing a woman to conform to an idealized shape — such as an hourglass — Chanel insisted that clothes should conform to a woman’s body and more importantly, to her needs. A woman needs to be able to do things, such as walk, run up a staircase or get into a gondola with ease.

In her designs, Chanel introduced the revolutionary concept that clothing must serve women’s needs. In doing so, the Chanel collections embodied the spirit of change that characterized the energy and youthfulness of the 20th century.


Dunn, Jennifer. “Coco Chanel and Fashion.” Transcription Topics. 20 December 1999. University of California at Santa Barbara. 13 March 2004 http://transcriptions.english.ucsb.edu/archive/topics/infoart/chanel/.

This website offers a complete and insightful account of Coco Chanel’s designs. The first section provides a good resource not only regarding the “look” of Chanel’s designs. In addition, this website is useful for identifying how Chanel’s “look” evolved in relation to prevailing social norms. The sections on the role both World Wars played in changing the social roles of women were especially illuminating. While many Internet sites on Coco Chanel focus on the designs, Dunn’s scholarly approach teases out how designs such as the “working uniform” and the “Chanel suit” both reflect social trends and open new opportunities for working women.

Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. New York: Henry Hold and Company, Inc.

It is well-known that many of the stories regarding Coco Chanel’s past are just fabrications. Many were in fact spread by Chanel herself. Considering this, Madsen does a remarkable job of presenting a thorough biography of one of the 20th century’s most innovative women. Madsen’s work, however, shows some weaknesses. He often underestimates, for example, the importance of the class system and social cachet in early 20th century Europe. This leads him to wonder why associations with royalty and powerful men were important to a modern woman like Coco Chanel. Despite this, his work is an interesting account of how Chanel managed to rise to the top of the fashion industry. The illustrations and Madsen’s novelistic style of writing make this book both entertaining and informative.

Wallach, Janet. Chanel: Her Style and Her Life. New York: Nan A. Talese.

In this book, author Janet Wallach presents another good biography of the influential 20th century designer. Wallach chronicles the growth of Chanel’s fame as well as the innovations of her designs. The use of lavish, black and white photographs further enhance Wallach’s story-telling. However, the most interesting parts of the book also delve into Chanel’s many love affairs. Unlike many sentimental Chanel biographies which shy away from controversy, Wallach also delves into Chanel’s affair with a Nazi officer during the German occupation of Paris. In sum, though, the book is a standard biography that offers details about Chanel’s personal life and her achievements.

There is little context relating Chanel’s influence on modern fashion and on the women’s movement as a whole. The book also does not discuss the importance and revolutionary nature of her designs, and of the role these innovations played in redefining how women express femininity through fashion.

Warner, Judith. “The Chanel Suit: Always in Style.” Town and Country. January 2002: 92-100.

This article discusses the enduring importance of one of Coco Chanel’s most important designs — the Chanel suit. It offers a detailed description of the suit’s creation, from fabric, material, cut, construction and price. Furthermore, the article also discusses how the suit itself articulates Chanel’s vision regarding how clothes should complement a woman’s lifestyle. Instead of being a standard “fashion” piece focusing on design, this article also locates the importance of Chanel’s vision in relation to other well-known designers such as Christian Dior. Through these comparisons, Warner approaches the issue of Chanel’s designs in a larger context, in relation to how different people define expressions of femininity.

Gabrielle Chanel.” Wikipedia. available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabrielle_Chanel

Haedrich, Marcel. Coco Chanel: Her Life, Her Secrets. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1972.

Hollander, Anne. Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. New York: Henry Hold and Company, Inc.

Sischy, Ingrid. “The Designer: Coco Chanel.” Time. June 8, 1998: 98-101.

Wallach, Janet. Chanel: Her Style and Her Life. New York: Nan A. Talese.

Warner, Judith. “The Chanel Suit: Always in Style.” Town and Country. January 2002: 92-100.

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