Could you imagine trying to do your daily tasks in a full skirt and corset? Trying to clean, or walk or even sit down would become a challenge. As women we take for granted that we can wear the clothes that we do, because more than likely if it wasn’t for Coco Chanel we would still be wearing full skirts and corsets. Imagine instead of jeans and t-shirts, or tank tops and shorts in the summer- the heat would be unbearable. As the first successful female fashion designer, Coco Chanel was truly an innovator. She broke the trend of restrictive designs the male designers gave women. Chanel’s fashions tied into the liberation of women from the bonds of society, much like the corsets she so passionately rejected.
Born in 1883, under the name Gabrielle Chanel- after an error on her birth certificate, which changed Chasnel to Chanel, Coco was the victim of a broken family. Her mom was constantly chasing after her father, who wouldn’t acknowledge his four children or wife. Her mother died young and her father left for America, leaving his two sons with a family in a nearby village and his daughters in a nearby covenant, Aubazine (Picardie). Aubazine was where Chanel initially learned how to sew.
Now, the interesting thing is that nothing quite adds up in her childhood stories; she tells varied tales of the same occurrence for most of her childhood life. After she left Aubazine, Chanel got her nickname Coco from singing “Ko Ko Ri Ko” and “Qui Qu’a Vu Coco?” in saloons with her Aunt Adrienne (Picardie). There are a few different stories as to how, but it was around this time that Coco met Entienne Balsan, who helped her start her way to the top. She either ran away with him, or showed up unexpectedly at his home, but she seemed to know that their relationship would be very beneficial to her. Balsan was a very wealthy man, and she stayed with him for a while, as his lover, although she found his life too lavish for her tastes- and was rumored to dine with the servants. But she did something that was the jumpstart into her career- she began tearing apart Balsan’s clothing and recreating fashions for herself, such as trousers and simple blazers made fro his suit coats. It was though Balsan and one of his acquaintances- Boy Capel, Chanel’s next lover, that Chanel opened her shop at Rue Cambon. The store space was provided by Balsan and the finances were taken care of by Capel (Picardie). There, the shop flourished and she was a star on the rise.
While Chanel was making her debut in fashion in the early 1920’s a change in the world was brewing. After a long battle of the sexes, women were finally allowed to vote nationwide in America(Lewis). Since that was before our time, women take for granted the right to vote, to go to work, even to be allowed to make their own life choices. But in all actuality, the struggle was very hard for women, as there was a well-funded anti-suffragist movement fighting against the suffragists. But the women persevered, and used humor as a tactic. Alice Duer Miller, an American writer composed a list of reasons why men shouldn’t vote, such as, “because a man’s place is in the army” or “because men are too emotional to vote. Their conduct at baseball games and political conventions show this, while their innate tendency to appeal to force renders them unfit for government” (Lewis). Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like things were going to turn around, until World War I. Since the majority of the men in the workforce went overseas to fight in the war, women went to the factories instead. It was because of this, and probably because everyone was tired of hearing their wives complain, that after the war the House of Representatives passed an amendment for women for women to have their vote in a 304 to 90 landslide (Lewis). And this was only the beginning- Europe followed suit, England in 1928, and France in 1944 (Grolier). So, how does Coco Chanel tie in? Well with their newfound power, women needed a new look that complemented their freedom. They said, “so long!” “Ciao” to the frilly, feminine looks and ate up the simple, shapeless silhouettes, which were Chanel’s forte (Davis). She perfected the “working woman” look and the empowered woman snatched it up. The ease of movement in the new fashions reflected the ease of integration of women into what had been previously “a man’s world.” She was also the first designer to use wool jersey in women’s fashion, whereas it had previously been used for “scratchy” men’s underwear (Davis). However this was perfect for what Coco had in mind, her trousers and simple striped shirts, her little black dresses that wealthy women simply ate up.
Chanel’s strong influence changed what women wore in a time where their minds were changing and evolving. She grew up in a tough situation without much love, and turned into a very successful and influential woman. In this time, where all women were just beginning to realize their full potential, they really needed a role model with the determination of Coco Chanel. Proving to be a genius, a hard worker, an innovator, and a strong woman, there has and never will be a woman like Coco Chanel. Her lasting impression is still very much present in the fashion world, when the word classic is uttered, all minds go to Coco Chanel.
Davis, Boyd. “Coco Chanel, Fashion Designer.” FashionWindows. Fashion Windows, 02 Mar. 2001. Web. 05 Apr. 2012. <http://www.fashionwindows.com/fashion_designers/chanel/default.asp>.
Grolier. “History of Women’s Suffrage | Scholastic.com.” Scholastic.com. Scholastic. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/suffrage/history.htm>.
Lewis, Jone. “August 26,1920.” About.com Women’s History. About.com. Web. 05 Apr. 2012. <http://womenshistory.about.com/od/suffrage1900/a/august_26_wed.htm>.
Picardie, Justine. Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life. New York: It, 2010. Print.