“Fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportions.”
Can you guess, confidently, who said this? If so you are well versed in the verbal offerings made by one of the most iconic woman in the 20th Century.
Like architecture there are certain things that make a dent in history and change the traditional course we had been following. Fashion over the years has connected with every man, woman and child. Beauty pageants have been a propaganda tool for the rich, young and fabulous, todays modernity now means we are losing the classic culture that came with being a woman and having a small amount of self expression. Gabrielle nee ‘Coco’ Chanel can only be labelled a pioneer in what we now observe as timeless, classic and individual. Hers is a name that evokes lust and envy. Brands have come forward attempting to compete with her simple but timeless designs, yet have always fallen just short of her ideology. A woman who was brought into the business before any other designer was ready to accept her stubbornness. Luckily for her, this may have been the catalyst to allow her to shock those around her in the masculinity of her earlier designs (most of the corporal ‘power-suits’ we see today were one of her first sketches.)
In the early 20th Century women were finished with the hourglass figure ‘desired’ or in fact ‘needed’ for the designers who kept up the full corsets and bosom friendly embellishments. These women wanted to forget the 19th Centuries fashion and look to a new and revitalised wardrobe. Where better to start than Paris? A melting pot of cultures meant tradesmen brought new textiles and colours, foreigners from the Orient came to the city seeking fortune and eventually The House of Chanel had incorporated life as Parisians knew it and made it available.
With The House of Chanel opening in 1909 by the madam herself it was a fantastic time to meet rich men and their wives/mistresses and discuss openly about what people desired to be out in the markets and the stores. The man from whom she rented her space to conduct business was, luckily, a socialite and Textile trader….Coco was also his mistress. Being the strong woman she was, she opened her own millinery independently only a year later. Of course with the dates of her early work being applied here it must come to the attention of the reader that at this period The First World War was about to wreak havoc on all the world and feminine, sexual clothing became less than important.
With men out fighting and dying in numbers so traumatic that the respect we have for those who fought for freedom will never wain, but who kept the crops growing? Who made the bullets? Who dug the coal? Women. So we can never deny that without us things would have been dampened!
Chanel helped fortify ideas for women who now had to go and endure manual and menial work, this is where long jersey sweaters became helpful in the cold nights, skirts of linen and Flannel Blazers would finish off a look that could be called ‘Peasant Chic’. I see it myself a lot round the fashionable parts of London! A good idea never dies, especially when it is always cold!
Summer of the The 1920’s was an Indian Summer for England and France… New summer dresses were designed by the madam and they had new ideas in place, anklets adorned with diamonds, thin eyelets on shoulder straps and more obvious use of jewellery in broaches etc…
During the Second World War Coco left her shop at Maison Chanel and left only jewellery and perfume available. The fashionable lady attempted to wait it out, but Paris was occupied with Nazis and strangely a rumour began that Gabrielle had become a Nazi collaborator! She was brought to the tribunals and questioned numerous times without ever agreeing to the heinous crimes that she may have assisted with intelligence or any such other manner. In 1944 The French were finally free and intensely, morosely, outrageously angry at their 5 year occupation and were on the war-path to shave any woman’s head to show the community what they had down to their country. Coco being high on the list swiftly grabbed her lover and head up to Switzerland for an 8 year exile. A girls best friend is her hair after all!
When Chanel returned in 1953 to the still recovering streets of Paris she found her peers and workers enamoured with the idea of ‘New Look.’ This could be epitomised by Christian Dior. The Parisians had fought and cried and lost for years on end. Now they wanted fun clothes, pretty clothes, clothes that gave them hope and promised them happiness. Chanel got on with her designing and this is where some of our favourite items have arisen. The coveted quilted 2.55” leather handbags with gold chains and Chanel No.5 – one of the most iconic perfumes, ever.
Coco received The Fashion Oscar for her Spring Collection in 1957.
Dying in 1971 at the age of 87 she left Paris in mourning, if not the whole fashion world. What was fashion without one of the first houses leaders to make sure it was not left to fall to the ground?
Well, in 1983 Karl Lagerfeld took over as chief designer (being a fan of fusing classic and modern) and this is where the future and subsequent praise falls a bit short.
The 80’s were booming economically and of course everyone wanted to make the best of their businesses and bring in the profit, but, if the lady had been there I am sure she would have made clear to those now in control that she never wanted her iconography used for profit alone. Thankfully, Chanel cosmetics and fragrances were distributed in Chanel only outlets.
The House of Chanel was always a global leader but now they were the heavy-sets even into the 1990’s but this was with heavy marketing that cost a fortune. The recession of the early 1990’s hit them hard but with more boutique expansion they recovered in the mid 90’s. I remember a woman of simpler desires.
Chanel now made the decision to buy other houses that were failing, eg. Eres and Holland & Holland. H & H was a clear failure in the idea of revamping both houses.
Since the arrival of Karl Lagerfeld he has churned out item after item, watches, perfumes, make-up, bags and more. Sure with the marketing budgets spent on them they remain lusted after and the celebrities will always snap up a chance to be the face of ‘Chanel’. But that is no longer who it is! This man who was entrusted with such a valuable position has satiated us with more than we can dine on. No wonder he looks so thin himself.
I have travelled extensively and encountered many a fake CC and with my respect for her history and impression on women throughout the ages, it hurts. To ruin such an emblem is not acceptable, ever. Karl Lagerfeld has made it easy for people though, the abundance of designs that hit the Asian markets for manufacture are copied and then here we are. On a street in Bangkok, Hong Kong or Taiwan and staring at all the stalls with all their CC wallets and bags for tourists to run in and laugh at the price, whisper “No-one will notice” and run off. Sure, with the economy how it is we cannot fork out huge amounts for items that we may not wear enough to balance the price tag is an issue, but who can argue with the design? It is more than a statement, it is an investment.
My mother gave me her Chanel bag when I was 19 and it has gone with me everywhere, it is ripped and stained and battered, but I love it because it has been through danger, passion and love. I would never want it to be out of my life. There is so much history that I can feel when its beauty is evoked, so many stories and so much more to come. That is what fashion means to me, eternity. There is only so much we can imagine that is a new idea. Inspiration conjured by our want, our need, its what keeps us interested in culture. Be it linked to fashion or some other historical link, it all plays a part, one that will never die.
Independence is so respected within a woman nowadays that has become the ‘norm’ if you will. Before Coco appeared on the scene the women of her day were confined to their patriarchal lives. In this last century we have developed so much that without individuality we become bland, we are invisible. Coco Chanel was never lost in society, in fact, she created a whole society herself.
Of course this would never be easy, I am not ignoring the female pioneers who were a strong part of history prior to her arrival, but we are discussing fashion here, how can we not discuss her presence?
My opinion is my opinion, there may be readers out there who will disagree about the importance of her arrival into fashion, but I do believe, hand on heart, that that will be minimal.
So to a woman whom I respect I raise my hat to you! And to a man that I feel sad for I down a shot for you!
by Amber Sophie Gerrard