History of Chanel

Chanel is one of the most iconic fashion houses out there, and has always been on the cutting edge of style. It is partly due to Coco Chanel’s influence that women were freed to wear much sportier and more versatile clothes, instead of the uncomfortable and inconvenient bodices and corsets, while still staying at the height of fashion.

It all started when Gabrielle Chanel was born in on August 19th, 1883. She was born in Saumur, France to a laundrywoman mother and a street vendor father. She lived a nomadic life, as her family often couldn’t afford to stay in one house for too long. When her mother died, twelve-year-old Chanel was sent by her father to convent of Aubazine, which ran an orphanage. There, she learned to sew. Upon aging out of the orphanage at eighteen, she found work as a seamstress.

Aubazine sur les traces de Coco ChanelTo get more money on the side, Chanel sang at a café-concert pavilion. There, she earned the nickname “Coco,” possibly due to her enthusiasm for two songs; “Ko Ko Ri Ko”, and “Qui qu’a vu Coco.” This line of work let Chanel meet many men, and, through these affairs, she was able to get enough money to open a Paris hat shop called Chanel Modes in 1910. Her hat business found great success after actress Gabrielle Dorziat wore Chanel’s hats on stage and in photographs.

2With her newfound fame, Chanel moved her shop to Deauville and started selling sportswear. The fashion world was struggling due to a scarcity of fabric caused by World War I. Innovative thinker that she was, Chanel decided to make her garments out of jersey, which had never gained much respect as a fashionable fabric. She even used the uniforms of soldiers as inspiration, since their clothes allowed them to move with comfort and ease. Chanel’s creations, too, were very convenient for the wearer, and people were amazed at how Chanel’s jersey creations fell in simple and beautiful drapes around women’s bodies.

Working Title/Artist: Day dress Department: Costume Institute Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: ca. 1924 mma digital photo: DP108289 mma photographer: Karin Willis

Chanel only became more and more popular, and started making suits, evening dresses, and pretty much anything else a classy woman would wear. People especially loved the suits, and they became known as Chanel Suits.

4fIn 1918, Chanel opened another shop in Paris. She was now officially “couture.” It was here that Chanel No. 5 was created. When it was first created, it was given out as a gift to Coco Chanel’s clients.  It was so popular that, by 1922, the company started offering it for sale. This scent and others, including Chanel No. 22, were hugely popular and prompted Chanel to partner with venture capitalist Pierre Wertheimer and businessman Théophile Bader to create Parfums Chanel, a parfumerie.

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In 1926, Chanel created the “little black dress,” which dazzled the world with its simple elegance. It was hailed as an instant classic.

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In 1931, at the personal request of Samuel Goldwyn, Chanel went to Hollywood to design for the most stylish celebrities.

7Throughout her career and despite some disagreements with her business partners, Chanel remained true to her simple, elegant style. The brand struggled throughout World War II, and all but one of Chanel’s shops closed. People still loved her perfumes (which was all that was being sold at the time) but distrust of her grew, as there were rumors that she was a Nazi conspirator. She was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, but still fled to Switzerland. There, she set up a new parfumerie. She eventually returned to France and resumed control of her beauty and fashion label.

When Chanel returned to fashion, she found that Christian Dior had revolutionized the world with his “new look.” She was not a fan of this, and vowed to bring her own ideas back to center stage. She unveiled her new collection in 1954. Among these items was the iconic quilted 2.55 bag, which could be carried in the hand or around the shoulder.

8A year later, she released Pour Monsieur, which is the only men’s fragrance she released in her life.

9Gabrielle Chanel died on January 10th, 1971 at the age of 87. Alain Wertheimer, a relative of Pierre Wertheimer, took the brand’s reigns in 1974 and brought some life back into it. The Chanel brand had been struggling, especially in America, and Wertheimer changed people’s attitudes toward it by decreasing the number of sellers who were authorized to stock Chanel No. 5. By doing so, he made the brand more exclusive and glamorous. He got celebrities to endorse Chanel and brought designer Karl Lagerfeld to the label. Lagerfeld kept the Coco spirit alive by using many of her favorite fabrics, like jersey and tweed, in his new designs. The label grew under Lagerfeld, and was the most profitable French fashion house in 1994.

10Chanel has only gained more legitimacy in the fashion world since then. With its classic and innovative designs, Chanel has certainly made its mark. Who knows what the designers at Chanel will bring to the runway next? Without a doubt, it will be beautiful.

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Written by: Rachel Manning

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