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Along with Paul Poiret, Chanel was credited with liberating women from the constraints of the “corseted silhouette” and popularizing the acceptance of a sportive, casual chic as the feminine standard in the post-World War I era.

coco-chanel

A prolific fashion creator, Chanel’s influence extended beyond couture clothing. Her design aesthetic was realized in jewelry, handbags, and fragrance. Her signature scent, Chanel No. 5, has become an iconic product.

coco-chanel

One of the first women to wear trousers, cut her hair and reject the corset was Coco Chanel. Probably the most influential woman in fashion of the 20th century, Coco Chanel did much to further the emancipation and freedom of women’s fashion.

Chanel in the late 1930s.
Chanel in the late 1930s.

From her first millinery shop, opened in 1912, to the 1920s, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel rose to become one of the premier fashion designers in Paris, France. Replacing the corset with comfort and casual elegance, her fashion themes included simple suits and dresses, women’s trousers, costume jewelry, perfume and textiles.

coco-chanel

Coco Chanel

coco-chanel

She adopted the name Coco during a brief career as a cafe and concert singer 1905-1908. First a mistress of a wealthy military officer then of an English industrialist, Coco Chanel drew on the resources of these patrons in setting up a millinery shop in Paris in 1910, expanding to Deauville and Biarritz. The two men also helped her find customers among women of society, and her simple hats became popular.

Coco Chanel, 1929
Coco Chanel, 1929

Soon “Coco” was expanding to couture, working in jersey, a first in the French fashion world. By the 1920s, her fashion house had expanded considerably, and her chemise set a fashion trend with its “little boy” look. Her relaxed fashions, short skirts, and casual look were in sharp contrast to the corset fashions popular in the previous decades. Chanel herself dressed in mannish clothes, and adapted these more comfortable fashions which other women also found liberating.

In 1922 Chanel introduced a perfume, Chanel No. 5, which became and remained popular, and remains a profitable product of Chanel’s company. Pierre Wertheimer became her partner in the perfume business in 1924, and perhaps also her lover. Wertheimer owned 70% of the company; Chanel received 10% and her friend Bader 20%. The Wertheimers continue to control the perfume company today.

Coco Chanel photographed by Douglas Kirkland, 1962.
Coco Chanel photographed by Douglas Kirkland, 1962.

Chanel introduced her signature cardigan jacket in 1925 and signature “little black dress” in 1926. Most of her fashions had a staying power, and didn’t change much from year to year — or even generation to generation.

coco-chanel

She briefly served as a nurse in World War II. Nazi occupation meant the fashion business in Paris was cut off for some years; Chanel’s affair during World War II with a Nazi officer also resulted in some years of diminished popularity and an exile of sorts to Switzerland.

Circa 1924 - Coco Chanel
Circa 1924 – Coco Chanel

In 1954 her comeback restored her to the first ranks of haute couture. Her natural, casual clothing including the Chanel suit once again caught the eye — and purses — of women. She introduced pea jackets and bell bottom pants for women. She was still working in 1971 when she died. Karl Lagerfeld has been chief designer of Chanel’s fashion house since 1983.

coco-chanel
Coco Chanel Photographed for Vogue in 1954 by Henry Clarke
Coco Chanel Photographed for Vogue in 1954 by Henry Clarke
1937 - Coco Chanel by Boris Lipnitzki
1937 – Coco Chanel by Boris Lipnitzki
Coco Chanel, 1935
Coco Chanel, 1935
chanel
chanel
1956 - Coco Chanel
1956 – Coco Chanel
Coco Chanel, 1970
Coco Chanel, 1970
Gabrielle Chanel vista da Karl Lagerfeld.
Gabrielle Chanel vista da Karl Lagerfeld.
1936 - Coco Chanel by Cecil Beaton
1936 – Coco Chanel by Cecil Beaton
coco-chanel
coco chanel standing in sitting room no 5 chandelier Chanel 31 rue cambon
coco chanel standing in sitting room no 5 chandelier Chanel 31 rue cambon
Coco Chanel Photographed by Willy Rizzo 1959 Paris - Les Tuileries
Coco Chanel Photographed by Willy Rizzo 1959 Paris – Les Tuileries
1954 – Coco Chanel. Photo by Henry Clarke.
1954 – Coco Chanel. Photo by Henry Clarke.
 Coco Chanel the year before her death, 1970

Coco Chanel the year before her death, 1970

 

Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel (40) - 1923 - Photo by Baron Adolf de Meyer
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel (40) – 1923 – Photo by Baron Adolf de Meyer

Her natural, casual clothing including the Chanel suit once again caught the eye — and purses — of women. She introduced pea jackets and bell bottom pants for women. She was still working in 1971 when she died. Karl Lagerfeld has been chief designer of Chanel’s fashion house since 1983.

coco-chanel

In addition to her work with high fashion, Chanel also designed stage costumes for such plays as Cocteau’s Antigone (1923) and Oedipus Rex (1937) and film costumes for several movies, including Renoir’s La Regle de Jeu. Katharine Hepburn starred in the 1969 Broadway musical Coco based on the life of Coco Chanel.

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