August 19 marks the 135th birthday of Coco Chanel, the milliner-turned-fashion designer whose style ethos remains uncannily modern year after year.
Everyone is familiar with Chanel, the brand, but not everyone knows that the house’s founder was behind some of the 20th century’s most iconic classics. Below are just 10 of these innovations credited to Coco Chanel.
1. Dropwaist dresses
A Chanel-clad Marion Morehouse, the third wife of poet e.e. cummings, photographed by Edward Steichen in 1926. She was said to be the first true supermodel.
At the turn of the 20th century, women’s fashion was both ornate and uncomfortable. Hats were enormous, embellished with flowers, feathers and gauze. A stylish silhouette meant corsets maids had to lace one into, whaleboned bodices and triple-strapped pointed shoes that could only be fastened with a button hook. Walking was a struggle with yards of fabric getting entangled in legs.
In 1916, Chanel debuted a new silhouette that was positively rebellious. Her dresses were shorter, revealing a woman’s ankles, and had no waists. Instead, there was a scarf or belt that was loosely tied at the hips, making corsets obsolete and allowing women to breathe free.
Chanel reportedly said ‘I gave women’s bodies their freedom back’, but ironically the dropwaist dress gave rise to a different, equally tyrannical species of shapewear. Breast-binding bras came into vogue as women tried to achieve the sleek, lithe profile necessary to carry off the ‘charming chemise’, as American fashion editors called it.
2. Bobbed hair
Chanel sported a bob pretty much throughout her life. Photos from Chanel and Her World by Edmonde Charles-Roux and A Matter of Style by Valeria Manferto de Fabianis.
In 1917, Chanel adopted the polarizing haircut that took the female world by storm when Irene Castle had her hair shorn. Bobbed hair was a radical departure from the long tresses of yore. It was frowned upon by the older generation, who assumed that women with bobbed hair were ‘fast’ and disreputable. Flappers took to it as they took to the drop waist dress, driving and smoking.
Chanel stuck to her signature hair style throughout her life, accenting it with head gear like cloche hats, berets and ribbons. A bob was liberating, modern and a very visual break from the past, themes that were consistently reflected in Chanel’s fashions.
3. Trousers for women
Coco Chanel and her friend, opera singer Marthe Davelli in trousers, circa 1929. Photo from Chanel and Her World by Edmonde Charles-Roux.
If bobs were polarizing, women wearing pants was an outrage in Chanel’s younger years.
As early as 1912, Chanel was wearing jodhpurs that she had borrowed from a groom and copied by a tailor. At that time, women who rode horses did so wearing their long hair fully coiffed under a top hat, clad in society-approved apron skirts that concealed breeches. They also rode side saddle, as befitted ladies of good breeding.
Chanel had started wearing sailor’s pants in Deauville, where she opened a boutique in 1913, as a modest alternative to the cumbersome swimwear of the Edwardian era. At the cusp of the 1930s, Chanel introduced trousers for women that were loose and elegant, yachting pants as they were soon to be known.
4. The little black dress
The little black dress that started it all in 1926 and Chanel working on its reincarnation in the 1950s. Left photo via Chanel and Her World by Edmonde Charles-Roux and right photo from A Matter of Style by Valeria Manferto de Fabianis.
Arguably the most famous little black dress would be Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy sheath in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The distinction of creating the little black dress in the first place though, belongs to Coco Chanel.
The illustrated black dress on the left was featured in Vogue’s American edition in 1926. The magazine predicted that this sheath of crepe de chine would become a uniform for women, a concept that was radical in itself. Vogue argued that one would not hesitate to buy a car that looked similar to other cars on the road if it was known for its quality. ‘Here is a Ford named Chanel,’ Vogue said.
The reception to the little black dress was as divisive as drop waist dresses, bobbed hair and pants on women. Male journalists bemoaned the loss of bosoms, waists and bums. Two more Chanel LBDs were featured in French Vogue in 1927, both dropwaist, knee-length and sleeveless, spurring one of the biggest names in fashion then, Paul Poiret, to utter his most famous lines:
‘What has Chanel invented? Poverty de luxe. Formerly women were architectural, like the prows of ships, and very beautiful. Now they resemble little undernourished telegraph clerks.’
5. Costume jewelry
Original Verdura Maltese cross cuffs from 1930 created for Chanel. Photo from Vintage Jewelry Design by Caroline Cox.
With the advent of the little black dress, a new canvas was born that begged for adornment. Wearing full-on jewels though was a hallmark of the past; Chanel’s brilliant idea was to use glass instead of real gems. One of the quotes attributed to her on the subject was ‘I love fakes because I find such jewelry provocative, and I find it disgraceful to walk around with millions around your neck just because you’re rich.’
Chanel’s boutiques started selling fake jewels in 1921, but really came into their own when the designer collaborated with Maison Gripoix, a firm known for its glass jewelry. The poured glass gems were striking, designed to evoke different stylistic periods from Byzantine to Art Deco.
One of the most recognizable costume jewelry pieces made for Chanel were the Maltese cross cuffs created by Fulco di Verdura who started his career at Chanel as the head of textiles. Chanel had passed him jewels given to her by Grand Duke Dimitri, her former lover, to be reset. Verdura crafted the gems into dramatic, hinged cuffs that became a Chanel signature.
Chanel sunbathing with sister Gabrielle in 1918 (left) and ‘elegant internationals’ sunning themselves in Tangier in 1964. Left photo from Chanel and Her World by Edmonde Charles-Roux and right photo from Look Magazine, January 1964.
Tans were a no-no in young Coco’s time. Brown skin implied that you had to labor outdoors for a living, while a lily-white complexion indicated an aristocratic existence where zero work was involved.
This view changed in 1923 when Chanel, now a confirmed celebrity, accidentally got sunburned on a cruise in the Riviera. The photographs of her with bronzed skin gave rise to a new beauty ideal. Tanned skin now meant wealth and status — only the rich could hang out on beaches throughout the year while the masses shivered at home.
Sunbathing became so fashionable that even Vogue back in 1927 had their say on it. ‘One has to be sunburned smartly, and to be so, one must needs make a serious business of it: First of acquiring it, then of dressing for it. And those who don’t recognise the importance of this credo are apt to be more sunburned than smart.’
7. Shoulder bags with chain straps
Catherine Deneuve with Johnny Hallyday. That’s a Chanel bag nestled under her arm.
The most coveted It Bag in the world is Chanel’s iconic 2.55 flap bag, named after the date that she unveiled it in February 1955. Legend has it that its bordeaux lining was inspired by the clothing she wore as an orphan on charity, yet this seems quite curious given the extent the designer went to in concealing her origins. Young women of means at the type of boarding school that Chanel attended, however, wore fine cashmere garments in a distinct garnet shade. Could the bag’s interior color have been inspired by them?
1955 was a memorable year for Chanel. The year before, she had launched her first collection after an absence of 15 years, an absence where Christian Dior was now the star of couture after introducing his New Look in 1947. Chanel’s designs seemed antiquated and severe in comparison, and the French press gave her 1954 comeback savage reviews.
Across the pond, it was a different story. Chanel’s new collection was warmly received by the American press and sold out on Seventh Avenue. Against all odds the out-of-touch couturiere was back in demand, her style philosophy — ‘A garment must be logical’ — making complete sense to a new generation.
The 2.55 bag she launched in 1955 embodied the chic functionality Chanel sought in every thing she produced. Every feature was thoroughly thought through. For example, the chain straps acted as jewelry while their shoulder length freed up women’s hands.
Through its many iterations through the decades, Chanel’s quilted bag remains a constant style aspiration, proof of the enduring genius of its design. Only perhaps Hermes’ Kelly and Birkin bags are as recognized and coveted, having also stood the test of time.
8. Tweed suits
Chanel tweed suits through the ages, left to right: Snappy ensembles featured in Vogue, January 1964; an abbreviated pastel jacket and skirt from Vogue, March 1990; style blogger Alexandra Lapp in the modern incarnation of jeans and Chanel jacket.
Another great example of Chanel’s appropriation of an unassuming medium and repurposing it into a timeless creation is her signature tweed suit.
Tweed is a sturdy woolen fabric normally associated with outdoor pursuits such as hunting, shooting and cycling. When Chanel took up with her English lover, the Duke of Westminster, in the mid-1920s, she liberally borrowed his tweed jackets for outdoor activities. It must have been these tweeds that inspired her to create her first tweed garments in the 1930s, and eventually the skirt suit that became a hallmark of her design house.
Charming as it is, Chanel suits are designed with engineer-worthy functional rigor. For example, a slim chain is sewn into each jacket’s lining at the hem, weighing down the garment for a perfect silhouette. It’s just one of the many fastidious details Chanel introduced that put her designs in a league of their own.
9. The two-tone shoe
Chanel’s two-tone shoe is both versatile and flattering.
The little tweed suit. The cascades of faux pearls. The quilted flap bag with chain handles. All these are elements in a quintessential head-to-toe look that, although aped by many, will always be attributed to Chanel. And that look is punctuated by the two-tone shoe that she introduced in 1957.
Sporting a sensible heel, the shoe had a beige body that seemed like an extension of the foot, ending in a black cap toe. The silhouette was immensely flattering, visually lengthening the leg. ‘We leave in the morning with a beige and black, we lunch with beige and black, we go to a cocktail party with beige and black,’ Chanel reportedly said during the shoe’s launch. ‘We are dressed from morning to night!’
Like the 2.55 bag, the two-tone shoe sports a new look season after season while retaining its core stylistic elements.
10. Synthetics in fragrance
Catherine Deneuve in a Chanel No. 5 ad from 1977
Before the 1920s, women’s fragrances were powdery, floral, single-note concoctions that were at stark odds with Chanel’s bold designs. She teamed up with premier perfume blender Ernest Beaux in 1921 to create a fragrance that would be like no other.
Beaux played around with multiple notes and, among the samples he provided the designer, one was truly unique. It contained aldehydes, synthetic compounds that added a mesmerizing sparkle to the natural essences. This scent didn’t smell like a rose or a lily. It smelt complex and memorable, like a woman.
It was this sample, the fifth that Beaux presented, that captivated Chanel. Hence the name Chanel No. 5.
Chanel broke tradition not just with the use of aldehydes, which kick started the great aldehydic florals in history, but also with package design. No. 5’s rectangular bottle was minimalist, almost severely so, and square, like a whiskey flask. It was the complete antithesis of the elaborate, sculpted crystal fragrance bottles that were characteristic of the time. Designed for the machine age, the bottle remains fresh and current nearly 100 years after its conception.
‘Elegance is refusal,’ is one of Chanel’s most famous quotes. Perhaps it is this maxim that is at the heart of her success, and why the looks she championed continue to endure.
Photo of Alexandra Lapp in Chanel first appeared on her fashion blog.