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Definition: Chanel, 'Coco' (Gabrielle) from Philip's Encyclopedia

French fashion designer. She revolutionized women's fashion, borrowing many elements of her designs from men's clothing. She is associated with the Chanel suit, jersey dresses, bell-bottom trousers, trench coats, and Chanel No. 5 perfume.


Summary Article: Chanel, Coco
from World of Art: The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Fashion and Fashion Designers

Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in Saumur, France. Although many questions surround Chanel’s early life, it is generally believed that she had acquired some experience in dressmaking and millinery before she opened a hat shop in Paris in 1910. This was followed three years later by the opening of a boutique in Deauville and another in Biarritz in 1915. Chanel made and sold hats, simple loose blouses, and CHEMISES. Chanel’s clothes were designed to be worn without CORSETS and were constructed with fewer linings to make them lighter and less rigid. As early as 1914 she was showing a simple chemise dress. In 1916 she began to make garments from jersey, a cheap fabric previously used only for underwear. Later, demand for this fabric and for a specially woven knit called kasha persuaded Chanel to manufacture them. In 1918 Chanel was producing CARDIGANS and TWINSETS. She adapted men’s sweaters and showed them worn over plain, straight skirts. In 1920 she introduced wide-legged trousers for women, based on sailor’s BELL BOTTOMS, which she called ‘yachting pants’. These were followed two years later by wide, generously cut beach PYJAMAS. Chanel’s personal life brought her into the public eye and increased her influence on fashion during the post-World War I years. She herself wore the clothes she had adapted from traditional menswear: belted raincoats, plain open-neck shirts, BLAZERS, cardigans, trousers and soft BERETS. Grey and navy-blue were her favourite colours but she also created a vogue for beige. She became a celebrated figure, the archetypal GARCONNE — flat-chested, slender, wearing loose, comfortable clothes and sporting a short, boyish haircut. Throughout the 1920s Chanel introduced one fashion idea after another. She teamed tweed skirts with sweaters and strings of pearls, transformed PEA JACKETS and raincoats into fashionable attire, and popularized the LITTLE BLACK DRESS. Her collarless cardigan-jacket was braid-trimmed, accessorized with PATCH POCKETS, and worn with knee-length tweed skirts. Her simple chemise dresses had round, straight or BATEAU NECKLINES, hung loosely to the mid- or lower calf and were worn with waist- or hip-length belts. Her other innovations of the period included oversized flat black bows, gilt buttons on blazers, SLING-BACK SANDALS and handbags with gilt chains. She had a particularly strong influence on jewelry, showing smart tweed suits worn with rows of artificial pearls or gilt chains. During the 1930s she commissioned Fulco DI VERDURA to design elaborate COSTUME JEWELRY using fake and semi-precious stones in ostentatious settings. In 1929 Chanel opened a boutique in her Paris salon to sell accessories: bags, belts, scarves and jewelry. The following year she went to Hollywood to design clothes for several United Artists films, including those for Gloria Swanson in Tonight or Never. Back in France in the mid-1930s, Chanel focused much of her attention on manufacturing. She closed her salon in 1939, at the outbreak of World War II. In 1954, at the age of seventy-one, she made her comeback, reopening her house and showing once again the neat-suits that had been her hallmark before World War II. The fashion world was shocked to see revamped prewar fashions but more women than ever took to wearing the Chanel suit, and by the 1960s it had become a symbol of traditional elegance, worn (as in the 1920s) with a gilt chain bag and a string of pearls. The look endures today, particularly in the USA.

The unmistakable flat-chested, slender figure of Coco Chanel, sketched here by her friend and colleague Jean Cocteau. In 1937, when this sketch was made, Chanel was still at the height of her career. Her own design for evening features many of the fashion touches that made her famous: the collarless, elegant dress, the obvious jewelry trimmings and the large bow in her hair.

Coco Chanel, sporting her famous knitted three-piece cardigan suit, ropes of pearls and two-tone shoes.

Chanel evening dress in black mousseline de soie, accessorized with pearls, 1925.

© 1986, 1989, 1998 and 2008 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London; Text © 1986, 1989, 1998, and 2008 Georgina O'Hara Callan

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