What Did Coco Chanel Do for Women?

by Sara Clark
Coco Chanel invented the little black dress, a modern wardrobe staple.

Coco Chanel invented the little black dress, a modern wardrobe staple.

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Fashion designer Coco Chanel has more right than most to be called an icon. Inventor of the "little black dress" and the "simple modern" style, her designs used men's tailoring and fabrics to create clean lines and a flattering fit. Because of Chanel's designs, women everywhere were able to discard the restrictive corsetry they had been wearing for centuries and step forward into the modern era. As Chanel herself once said, "luxury must be comfortable, or it is not luxury." Today her designs are as relevant as ever, and many businesswomen have a Chanel-inspired suit in their closet.

Chanel's Biography

In 1883, in the Loire region of France, Coco Chanel was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel. Her middle name is French for "happiness," an apt foretaste of the joy she was to bring to millions. She gained her nickname of Coco during a brief spell as a nightclub singer in her late teens. Her mother died when she was a child, and her father put her into an orphanage to be raised by nuns. This unpromising start proved to be pivotal in her career, as it was under the tutelage of the nuns that she learned to sew. A rich patron enabled her to set up her first shop, selling hats in Paris. She gradually expanded the business to include clothing.

Before Chanel

As Chanel was launching her business in Paris, a revolution was continuing across Europe. The First World War was newly over, and thousands of young women had been working as land girls, drivers, mechanics and other traditionally male jobs. In the aftermath of the war, young people were out to enjoy themselves in the new jazz clubs and cocktail bars, and women were beginning to find a new place in society. The restrictive outfits previously in style required an uncomfortable corset, a long skirt and a tight waist, and women who had worked as nurses and other occupations were finding these styles impractical. The fashion world was ripe for change, and Chanel was the lady to bring it.

A Practical Approach

More and more women were moving toward practicality in their approach to dress. Post-war, servants and maids were less available, and younger women started to abandon their elaborate hairstyles in favor of low-maintenance crops or bobs. Chanel introduced the flapper style, a simple silhouette with a dropped waist and shortened skirt that allowed for ease of movement. The style was tailored using cloth previously used for men's clothing, and was more practical and hard-wearing than the old-fashioned Edwardian-style gowns. As the shape and style were so simple, more and more women started to follow fashion by making their own dresses at home.

Influence on Modern Times

In the 1920s, Chanel introduced two classics that still have a heavy influence on today's fashion. The little black dress was controversial at the time, the color being traditionally associated with mourning. However, many young women living on a budget hailed it as the perfect dress -- simple, flattering and hard-wearing. In 1926, Chanel introduced the skirt suit, which allowed the newly working women to look business-like yet feminine. Jackie Kennedy was famous for her Chanel suits, which brought the look to a new generation. Chanel died in 1971, but the company she founded is still a major force in the fashion world.

Photo Credits

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