Coco Chanel is nobody who needs to be introduced. But this article aims to give you a basic overview of Coco Chanel designs. Here are 7 facts you absolutely should know about her iconic designs.
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Fashion Fact #1: Everything Began with Hats
Coco Chanel did not start her career as a fashion designer with a comprehensive collection of different garments and accessories. She focused on one product only and that was hats. Hats at the time made sense as they were an important part of the female wardrobe and Chanel’s creations were soon picked up by the upper-class-ladies with whom she socialised.
Chanel started out during the so-called Belle Époque, the period from around 1880 until World War I in France and some other European countries. The hats at the time were very flamboyant – they were big, colourful and heavily decorated with silk flowers for example. Chanel’s hats were much more reduced. They still followed some fashion conventions of the time, but they were much simpler and, consequently, also easier to wear. The evolution of her hats already hinted at her later impact in fashion: Chanel always emphasized that she wanted to create fashion which was elegant and chic but also allowed the woman to move freely. Her silhouettes and designs were clear and reduced and every detail had a function – for example she did not use faux pockets. If you can see a pocket, it is a functional pocket.
Belle Époque hats.
Chanel always designed for herself and her interests. She was very different from many women at the time, she could even be seen as daring. She went on hunting excursions with men, horseback riding, she wore trousers and she lived unmarried with her lover Étienne Balsan for an extensive period of time. Furthermore, it is crucial to remember that this was the time of the suffragette movement, women finally gained the right to vote in some European countries and they became more and more independent. This was also reflected in fashion, garments and silhouettes. As you may know, a lot of Chanel’s designs were acutally inspired by menswear – this was not limited to the trousers which she herself wore and popularised. Similar to Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel often took signature men’s garments and adapted them to the needs of women.
Coco Chanel with her friend Eva Bate Lombardi wearing trousers.
And this leads to the second fashion fact:
Fashion Fact #2: The Chanel Suit
Suits had been in Chanel’s collections since the 1920s but they gained popularity after her first spring collection in 1954, after reopening her house. She used two of her signature materials – jersey and tweed. Instead of creating eveningwear, she focused on simple daywear garments which could be dressed up or down. With this, she grabbed the attention of American buyers and she kept refining the suits and their details. In 1957, the suit with all its signature details which we know until today had been created. These suits consisted of straight-cut jackets and straight skirts. This shape was an antidote to the overly tailored suits of Christians Dior’s “New Look” which was still popular at the time. Chanel’s suits did not need the support of the corset which she absolutely detested. Chanel paired the suits with blouses whose material matched the lining of the jackets. As most blouses were short-sleeved, she sometimes added faux cuffs on the jacket in this colour of the lining or she turned the jacket cuffs inside out to expose the lining.
Her suits were simple yet chic. They took into account that women actually have to do get things done in their garments. In contrast to other designers, Chanel did not sketch and make patterns, she constructed and designed the garments directly on the body, allowing her to consider the natural movement of the body. Hence, the armholes of her suits were higher to allow more flexibility, the cut was simple – like a cardigan – enabling the wearer to move without disturbing the simple line of the jacket. The skirts had zips on the back and the side ensuring that they sat perfectly.
The Chanel suit has evolved over time but some details have remained and even have become iconic: the trimmings in contrasting colours (with those on the pockets matching the collar and the cuffs of the jacket), custom buttons and the hidden chain stitched into the hem of the suit jacket to ensure the fit. The classic choice of Gabrielle Chanel was a collarless neckline to elongate the neck but at the same time also ensure comfort. Furthermore, Chanel always stressed the functionality of her creations. Her credo was “no button without a buttonhole,” pockets also always had a function. A mere decorative effect was not enough for her. The neckline and functionality also allowed the wearer to adopt the signature Chanel walk – the hips pushed forward and one hand placed in the pockets.
Chanel created suits for any occasion and season and used different types of fabric – such as silk, linen and tweed, with the latter making her suits famous. Already in the 1920s, Chanel took this fabric which was popular in the British countryside for sports and outdoor activities such as hunting expeditions and transformed it into something fashionable for the city. Tweed also stands for Chanel’s strong links to Britain – she had a long romantic relationship with the Duke of Westminster who introduced her to Winston Churchill who also became one of her lifelong friends. Because of these personal relationships, Chanel not only knew about the various activities popular amongst the British upper class, she also knew about the dress code. Chanel got herself riding breeches at Saville Row tailors Huntsmann which she most likely paired with her own jackets.
Tweed was water-repellent and its natural colours helped to blend into the landscape on shooting days. Chanel did not invent the tweed suit for women but she turned this rather practical garment into something chic and fashionable. Through her personal connections in Britain, she got in touch with tweed suppliers which she also tapped into after she reopened her house in the 1950s.
The suit became a classic – not only in her signature “colour” black but in a veritable rainbow of colours and styles. She also used a broad range of very luxurious fabrics such as gold and silver lamé, or textured cloqué. Needless to say, the suits were only accessible to the upper class. Not every woman could afford Chanel’s suits, but many wanted to wear one. Hence, fashion magazines such as French Elle or Vogue issued patterns so that women could copy the design themselves. Moreover high-street retailers such as the British Walls capitalised on Chanel’s designs and launched very popular copies. Chanel herself never showed any sign of worry about copies – she famously said that if someone is worried about being copied, they have lost their creativity and drive for new ideas.
Sewing patterns for suits in Vogue.
In the 1960s, the Chanel suit had reached such a high level of popularity that American Vogue predicted it to become a “uniform” for women and compared it to the popularity of the Ford cars.
Fashion Fact #3: The Little Black Dress
In 1919, Paris was finally a busy and lively place again with the Peace Conference at the beginning of the year attracting many international delegations. Needless to say, disruptions and shortages were still part of every day life. Chanel incorporated this dichotomy into her designs and created costumes for evening wear which were almost entirely black, relatively short and loose fitting. What was special was that they could also be worn in the afternoon under a manteaux, an afternoon coat. With this, Chanel challenged the status quo of having set times for certain clothes and allowed women more flexibility. Furthermore, this released women from the pressure of constantly changing outfits and wearing uncomfortable clothes. It also significantly reduced the preparation time – on the one hand, these garments could be worn to many different occasions, on the other, the wearer did not depend on anyone else to help her get dressed. Think about the big dresses of the Belle Époque – most of the time, the ladies needed help to put on their clothes. The little black dress was easily put on and could be dressed up or down, depending on the occasion.
Chanel today is often associated with the colour black but we tend to forget how revolutionary her “little black dress” actually was. Black was the colour of service, shop assistants or, worse, mourning. But Chanel established it as a chic option – without any unnecessary decorations, she appreciated black because it was flexible and emphasized the sleek and simple silhouette of her designs which were extremely modern. She started to introduce black already in the 1910s. Some journalists or fashion experts claimed that this colour was related to the death of her long-term lover Arthur “Boy” Capel death. Elsa Maxwell wrote in her newspaper column that Chanel could not mourn Capel’s death as they had never been married and “only” had an affair. According to her, Chanel forced everyone to wear black so that she could mourn his death. Chanel later called this comment in an interview in “bad taste”, and let’s be honest, it kind of was.
Variations of the afore-mentioned black costumes from 1919 later turned into the “little black dress”. We could say that the basis for what we know today as “little black dress” was a crepe de Chine day dress, model 817.
Fashion Fact #4: Two-Tone Shoes
In 1957, Chanel started to work with the shoemaker Massaro. She had approached various potential suppliers and made contact with Massaro who had been recommended to her. Chanel’s vision was to simplify women’s shoes. At the time, haute couture clients had their shoemakers create unique shoes for each of their outfits. Chanel aimed to create one shoe which would be versatile enough to fit to a broad range of garments and occasions. She came up with her signature two-tone shoes: beige leather to match the wearer’s skintone and to elongate the leg. The black cap at the front of the slightly pointed shoes should not only protect the leather from the dirty streets but also shortened the foot at the same time. The heels were just high enough to achieve a feminine walk without being too high.
Fashion Fact #5: The 2.55 Bag
In 1954, Chanel wanted to further simplify female outfits by creating a bag which could be used for all types of occasions. She came up with a quilted design, which was imspired by equestrian equipment. The bag came in different sizes and was made from either lambskin, suede or jersey. Chanel wanted to create a bag which did not need to be carried in one’s hand and added chain straps which were interwoven with leather. Hence, the bag could be carried on one’s shoulder and the straps also fulfilled a decorative function similar to her jewellery. This bag was launched in February 1955 and until today, its name reflects Chanel’s fondness of numeric titles: the 2.55 bag refers to the month and year of its creation.
Fashion Fact #6: Costume and Fine Jewellery
Chanel’s simple and sleek garments made from humble fabrics like jersey were frequently paired with big and bold jewellery. Gabrielle Chanel herself was famous for mixing real gems or pearls with imitation jewellery and she advertised costume jewellery also to her clients – to such an extent that many experts later attributed the popularity of costume jewellery largely to Chanel. She started to make jewellery around 1924 and partnered with various jewellery makers and designers in France, among them the Maison Gripoix, famous for their hand-poured glass technique achieving a round, three-dimensional effect resulting in beautiful transparent shapes. In the 1930s, Gripoix was the perfect match for Chanel’s floral designs. She not only created costume jewellery, she gave it a new status and contributed to a bigger appreciation of its own techniques and aesthetics. In the 1930s, Fulco Santostefano della Cerda, the Duke of Verdura, joined her jewellery efforts and together they created some of the Houses most famous pieces such as bold cuffs with imitation gemstones which were inspired by Byzantine mosaics. Later that decade, Chanel collaborated with Francois Hugo who is said to have designed her signature buttons as well.
Chanel not only designed costume jewellery, she also branched out into fine jewellery. In 1932, she was approached by the International Diamond Corporation of London to design jewellery made from diamonds and platinum. In these difficult economic times, diamonds may have been considered in bad taste by many, and the industry needed Chanel’s support. She famously said that she considered diamonds an investment rather than extravagance and designed different pieces with celestial motifs such as stars, comets, the sun and the moon but also feathers, bows, knots and even geometrical patterns. Similar to her clothes, this jewellery also was designed to achieve a certain degree of practicability – necklaces, bracelets and brooches could be used as head accessories or attached to hats and the diamonds were mostly of the same size and set in clusters so that they could be reset in the future relatively easilty. Chanel presented the jewellery collection at her apartment in Paris on wax figurines and donated the proceeds to charity. Reportedly, this presentation and the following press attention helped the stock of diamond dealer De Beers to rise 20 points in the aftermath of the presentation.
Chanel’s jewellery creations were inspired by her own travels but also by her museum visits. Similar to her successor Karl Lagerfeld, she was inspired by different regions of the world and various time periods.
Fashion Fact #7: The Chanel “Total Look”
Chanel’s career had begun with hats – accessories. And these accessories would always remain important to her business. No Chanel outfit was complete without jewellery. Already before World War II, Chanel partnered with suppliers such as the previously mentioned Maison Gripoix to produce brooches, pendants, earrings and further jewellery – needless to say, faux pearls had always been a core of her design. She revived her jewellery business when she reopened in the 1950s. Furthermore, she produced scarves, gloves and handbags.
As you can see Chanel’s design legacy was a number of things – the suit became a timeless staple, the two-tone pumps have been reiterated in different designs and her 2.55 bag became an icon. The “total look” is still very much associated with Chanel and with it, she laid the groundwork for the strategies of many of the luxury brands today.
 Chaney 2012, Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A, Picardie 2011 p. 67-73, V&A 2023, p.12-16.
 Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A, V&A 2023, p. 49.
 Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A, V&A 2023, p.49-50.
 Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A, V&A 2023, p.28-29.
 Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A, V&A 2023, p.28.
 Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A, V&A 2023, p.49-52.
 Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A, V&A 2023, p.52.
 Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A, V&A 2023, p. 19.
 Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A, V&A 2023, p. 52.
 Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A, V&A 2023, p. 35.
 Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A, V&A 2023, p. 38-40.
 Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A, V&A 2023, p. 36.
 Information provided at the exhibition at the V&A, V&A 2023, p. 52.
Information provided at the exhibition “Gabrielle Chanel – Fashion Manifesto” at the V&A, London 2023.
Lisa Chaney, Chanel – An Intimate Life, Audiobook via Audible, 2012.
Justine Picardie, Chanel – The Legend and the Life, London 2011.
V&A, Gabrielle Chanel – Fashion Manifesto, exhibition catalogue, London 2023.
Hal Vaughan, Coco Chanel – Der schwarze Engel: Ein Leben als Nazi-Agentin, 2nd edition (in German), Hamburg 2013.
This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above.