Last year in honor of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (born: August 19, 1883 died: January 10, 1971) I posted an article that discussed her personal and professional life. Chanel was a French fashion designer that has effected what women have been wearing for a century. Chanel started designing fashionable hats this lead to her starting her own fashion line which proved to be an enormous success. Her understated and elegant designs set many of the fashion trends that women are still wearing today. Chanel eventually expanded her fashion line to include accessories, such as jewelry, handbags and fragrance Chanel No. 5 which still remains one of the bestselling perfumes of all times. In Part Two, I will discuss some of Chanel’s iconic contributions to the world of fashion.
The Chanel Suit
In 1921 Coco Chanel designed a women’s suit that would become a classic fashion item, it was the first suit made specifically for women. The Chanel Suit was a collarless, buttoned wool jacket and a straight A-line skirt; the suit would sometimes be decorated with braid trim or metallic buttons. The Chanel Suit was usually made in tweed material cut on the straight grain and the jacket was lined with jersey or silk crepe. The jacket was designed without shoulder pads and there were no darts at the bust line, the neckline lacked a collar for comfort and useful pockets. As most clothes that Chanel designed it came from her personal need to have something comfortable but yet fashionable with a sophisticated look. As the Chanel Suit emerged as a fashion choice, the timing was after World War I and women were starting to enter into business.
The Little Black Dress
The first Chanel designed little black dress appeared in the 1926 Vogue magazine in the United States, it was predicted the dress would “become a uniform for all women of taste”. The simply-cut dress was initially available in silk crêpe de chine and had a straight neckline, long sleeves and calf-length skirt. The “neutral” color of the dress was intended to be both versatile, affordable and meant to transcend several seasons, perhaps years and could be accessorized for daytime and evening. Chanel later made the dress in wool or chenille for the day and silk, satin or velvet for the evening.
The Chanel Bag
The Chanel Bag was designed in 1929 and the original version was made in leather. The bag’s exterior featured a hand-stitched quilted design and the interior was lined in a burgundy color (which was said to be used by Chanel and was reminiscent of the color of the uniforms at the Aubazine Abbey, the convent and orphanage in central France were she lived for six years). The back of the bag has an outside compartment for storing money and on the inside of the front flap there is a zippered compartment, Chanel was known to keep her personal love letters there in her own purse. At the front of the original bag there was a front lock, which was known as the “Mademoiselle Lock” referring to Chanel’s unmarried status. Chanel also designed the original bag with double chain shoulder straps to allow women the freedom of not holding onto their bag which would free their hands for other activities. The chains featured leather straps laced through them; this was a feature reminiscent of the chains that the nuns would have used at the Aubazine orphanage from Chanel’s childhood.
Throughout the years the basic Chanel Bag has been updated and restyled. The “2.55” bag was designed in February 1955, hence the name of this version. The bag was made in a variety of leather and fabric color combinations and featured the Mademoiselle Lock or a special order lock shaped in the classic double CC Chanel logo.
The Pearl Necklace
The history of pearls dates back several centuries to the time of the ancient Greeks when women wore them in their hair for weddings to symbolize purity and to ensure marital happiness. During the Renaissance women would intertwine pearls into their hair also embellished their clothing with pearls. Noble women (such as Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia, Queen Alexandria and Queen Mary of Britain) and women of the upper class often wore several layers of necklaces made of natural pearls. In 1893, Kokichi Mickimoto perfected the process for creating beautiful and lustrous cultured pearls and a new jewelry industry was born which made pearl necklaces available for the women of the middle class.
In the early 1920s, Coco Chanel set the fashion trend of wearing cultured pearls during the daytime; she would also combine the pearls with other pieces of fine jewelry and by doing this she made it acceptable for women to mix inexpensive and expensive jewelry to be worn at the same time.
Chanel No. 5 perfume
Throughout the years, Chanel was constantly looking for ways to expand her business. In 1922 she was introduced to Pierre Wertheimer, the director of the Bourgeois Perfume and Cosmetics Company, and she worked with Ernest Beaux, a Russian-French perfumer, to create the chemical formula for a special fragrance. Women of the upper class would wear traditional perfumes made from the pure essence of a single flower while ladies of the lower class wore more sensual perfumes made from animal musk. Chanel No. 5, which was originally only sold exclusively in the Chanel stores, was a combination of the two different scents perfectly blended for the new modern women of the 1920s.
After entering into the agreement with Wertheimer and Bader, a separate company was created called Parfums Chanel. The arrangement was that Wertheimer would receive seventy percent, Bader would receive twenty percent and Chanel would have the remaining ten percent but she would have no involvement in the actual running of the business. Years later, Chanel realized her error in being “tricked” into such a low percent of the company when the profits of the sale of the perfume reached nine million dollars annually. She was also concerned that the original formula for Chanel No. 5 had been altered and was being produced inexpensively with inferior ingredients to meet the high consumer demands. It would take twenty years of legal battles to finally reach a settlement and a new arrangement was agreed upon paying Chanel retroactive outstanding profits not paid to her and also increasing her percentage of the future profits, her earnings from Chanel No. 5 sales would be almost twenty-five million dollars annually.
There are several reasons for the selection of the name of Chanel No. 5, Chanel considered the number five to be her special number. Chanel associated the number five with her childhood at the Aubazine convent and orphanage for several reasons, such as the five-petal roses which grew naturally on the hillsides surrounding the Abbey or the circular pattern repeated five times during daily prayers at the Abbey’s church. Another reason could be traced back the fact that the scent that Chanel choose was the fifth sample. (Chanel always showed her annual fashion collection on May fifth, the fifth month and fifth day of the year)
Chanel was involved in all aspects of the selection and design process of the Chanel No. 5 perfume. In regards to the perfume bottle’s design, she thought the Lalique and Baccarat crystal bottles used for the other women fragrances were too elaborate. She wanted a simple bottle and it was thought that it inspired by the Charvet rectangular bottles in the traveling case used by her companion, Arthur “Boy” Capel or possibly the squared shape of his whiskey decanters.