Monday, August 15, 2016

The Enduring Legacy of Coco Chanel: Revolutionizing How Women Dress

How Coco Chanel changed fashion

I recently read Coco Chanel, the Legend and the Life, by Justine Picardie.  It's a detailed, lavishly illustrated biography, revealing the true history of one of the 20th Century's most interesting and influential people.  I absolutely loved this book.  I came away from it feeling like I had gone way beyond the icon, and gotten to know the heart of a guarded, complicated, sometimes dark but always fascinating woman.  While many books have been written on Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, this one is much more personal...

Not only did the author gain access to the Chanel archives, she was also allowed to write large parts of the book at the desk in Chanel's actual apartment.

The book made me realize that whether you love or hate what the house of Chanel has become, (and, honestly, I have a problem with any bag that costs $5500,) you can't deny the transformative, enduring influence of Coco Chanel herself.  Today, the brand is known as the ultimate in luxury.  Even in her lifetime, Chanel was a couture designer, with pieces available only to wealthy women.  But what Chanel did to transform how all women dress was not exclusive to the elite.  In fact, her widespread influence is nothing short of revolutionary.

Before Chanel, women wore tightly-laced corsets under heavy floor-length dresses.  The dresses were supported by many, many undergarments, with several layers made out of flannel.  Since girls were corseted starting at around age 2, their bodies were actually disfigured as they grew to fit into the wasp-shaped garments required by fashion.  Chanel changed all of that.

When you look at the clothing styles Chanel popularized -- from simple shift dresses to tailored tweed jackets -- they look effortlessly chic and ever-modern.  At the time, they were radical.  While the Chanel label was expensive and out of reach to many, her actual trends reached the mainstream.  Chanel's ideas were copied by clothing manufacturers to satisfy women who wanted freedom from restriction.  Chanel's boyish cuts, comfortable knit fabrics and designs that liberated legs and waistlines became the pillars of 20th Century fashion design.   Chanel even made it okay to wear black as something other than a color of mourning, and for that she will always be my hero.

When my husband and I went out for date night recently, I put on a little black dress made of jersey knit.  This is one of my favorite looks.  It's easy.  It's chic.  You can dress it up or down with accessories and jewelry.  You can run and dance and drink too much ... and you still look great.  We all have little black dresses that we choose over and over again, right?  I realize now that it was Chanel who introduced the LBD  into fashion's vernacular.  Thanks, Gabrielle!

Doesn't everybody take tipsy selfies in the bathroom on date night?

Be sure to watch the great short film at the top of this post for more details on how Chanel changed  fashion.  Below, author Justine Picardie talks about writing Chanel's biography.  (Everybody: read the book!  It's that good!)

Watch Justine Picardie talk about how she wrote Coco Chanel, the Legend and the Life

I even found some wonderful vintage footage of Chanel fashion shows:

Vintage film footage of Chanel designs from the 1930s - 1980s

Coco Chanel, From Fashion Icon to Social Revolutionary video by New Scope Productions.
Justine Picardie interview video from Book Army
Vintage fashion show video by Dionyss99