With The LCF opening an exhibition tomorrow of Coco Chanel portraits by Marion Pike, we look back at the seven ways the designer revolutionised women’s fashion.
Arguably the most influential fashion designer of all time, Coco Chanel revolutionised the way women wore clothes and paved a new way for the fashion brand, capitalising on the changing times she was living in and her status as a fashion icon. With The London College of Fashion opening an exhibition of portraits of the designer painted by her friend and artist Marion Pike on tomorrow, Wonderland looks back on seven ways the designer changed the course of fashion history.
1. Trousers For Women
Although during the war women often had to wear trousers when working in traditionally male jobs, Chanel played a huge part in accelerating their popularity as a fashion item. While at the society beach resort of Deauville she chose to wear sailor’s pants instead of a swimming costume to avoid exposing herself, and the style spread quickly as her legions of followers emulated her. In the end, the designer regretted how her careless decision affected the course of fashion history. Aged 86 she said: “I came up with them by modesty. From this usage to it becoming a fashion, having 70% of women wearing trousers at evening dinner is quite sad.”
At the start of the 20th century, pale was in— skin that was in any way brown was associated with the lower classes. In 1923 Chanel made suntan a covetable fashion accessory when she accidently got sunburned while on a cruise on the French Riviera. On her return to Paris, her peers greatly admired her dark glow and quickly followed suit. The tan became a sign of wealth and beauty, a trend that has had lasting effects. By default, you could say we have her to thank for sun beds, streaky fake tan and orange hands too.
Chanel was the first designer to use jersey, which at the time was reserved for men’s underwear. Simple, practical and comfortable, the fabric was the complete antithesis of what women’s clothing had previously been: flashy, excessive and based around an uncomfortable corset. This choice of material was also one of necessity: the war had resulted in a short supply of more expensive fabric, and early in her career it was an affordable option to buy in bulk.
4. Branded Perfume
In 1921 Chanel No. 5 was launched, the first scent that smelt deliberately artificial. It was made of unnatural ingredients, unlike the standard perfumes of the day, which were created with floral components. Although Paul Poiret was the first fashion house with its own scent, the designer missed a trick by declining to put his name on the bottle. Chanel ingeniously put hers on No.5, spreading the brand to a whole new market. Fast forward 90 years later and most major fashion labels worth their salt have their own scent, with perfume profits often exceeding those of the apparel.
5. Costume Jewellery
Again it was Paul Poiret who first used costume jewellery in his collections, but when Chanel introduced fake large pearls and glittering gemstones the trend really began to take off. Combining the real with the fake, the extravagant bling was the perfect accompaniment to her minimalist clothes. The designer thought it best to have a pile of imitation jewels then to stick to one or two expensive real ones, and her wealthy customers agreed. Although there was a market for fake jewellery previously, it was reserved for those who couldn’t afford the real deal.
6. The Little Black Dress
It’s hard to imagine a world without black as a foolproof outfit colour choice, but before Chanel the colour was reserved for funerals and widows in mourning. The fashionable reds, green and electric blues that her peers dressed in made the designer “feel ill.” “These colours are impossible,” she declared. “These women, I’m bloody well going to dress them in black!” In 1926, Vogue published a sketch of her calf-length simple black sheath and labelled it a “frock that all the world would wear”. A wardrobe staple was born.
7. The Chanel Suit
The designer was one of the first to borrow from menswear for women’s attire when she created her iconic suits. Consisting of a collarless boxy wool jacket with braid trim, fitted sleeves and metallic embellished buttons with accompanying slimline skirt, the outfit was the perfect choice for the post-war woman who was trying to build a career in the male-dominated workplace. The suit was favoured by celebrities like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, and made its mark on history when Jackie Kennedy wore it on the day her husband was assassinated.
The ‘Coco Chanel: A New Portrait by Marion Pike, Paris 1967-1971’ exhibition opens tomorrow at the LCF Fashion Space Gallery.
Words: Eleanor Dunne (follow Eleanor on Twitter @eleanordun1)