We all know French women have a reputation—ahem—for fashion.
After all, fashion is where seduction begins, n’est-ce pas? Even so, no one stands out like Coco Chanel, who was not just any French woman, but the French woman of style.
Is it any wonder we revere her? Coco Chanel tossed the corset in the corner (very seductive!) She integrated menswear design elements to give us freedom of movement. She brought black out of the “exclusively for mourning” closet and into daily wear. And in the pre-WWI era, when following your own lead wasn’t at all fashionable for a woman, she led with confidence, flair, and elegance.
Now, 45 years after her death, we’re still reeling from the effects of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel’s vision; a woman with so much panache, her personal preferences became iconic (“I don’t do fashion, I am fashion”), who set her own trends (“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud”), and who declared her own WWI on style by designing with that oh-so-scandalous fabric, jersey. At the time, it was exclusively used for men’s underwear. (“Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.”)
How did she manage it? It certainly wasn’t easy being born in 1883 in the poorhouse, the second child of an unwed mother. When her mother died young leaving five children, her father dropped the two boys off at farmhouses and the three girls at a convent. The nuns at the Abbey of Aubazine taught Gabrielle to sew, and many say convent life, with the black and white color palette of the nuns’ habits, the uncluttered rooms, and even the way the tiles of the floor fit together, inspired Chanel’s design vision.
Her vision was extraordinary and far-reaching. Your black quilted handbag? Chanel. The two-toned ballet flats? Umm hmm. The collarless jacket? Yes, ma’am. Streamlined short skirt? Wide-bottomed pants? Scads of fake pearls? The little black dress? She either invented it or popularized it, daring to wear pants as often as possible when most women didn’t wear them at all. And that’s not even counting the perfumes. Not only was Chanel No. 5 the first fragrance not reeking with cloying floral overtones, it was the first fragrance to bear a designer’s name.
Only Chanel could transform boyish simplicity into femininity, so thanks, Coco, for stealing menswear’s long clean lines, well-cut fit, comfort, and oh yes, anything made out of jersey.
She might have been born in the poorhouse, but she knew how to dress. And when she died, it was in Paris, at the Hotel Ritz, with a net worth of 19 million. The French woman, indeed.