1. She changed the face of women’s fashion forever. Ya know how women’s fashion revolved around corsets and pouffy skirts for a thousand years? And then suddenly, in the early 1900’s, modern fashion emerged and women started wearing normal clothes? That’s Chanel. She pioneered the modern look. She gave us the little black dress, trousers for women, straight skirts, black toe-capped shoes, quilted leather bags, bathing suits, the striped sailor top, costume jewelry, cardigans, and the classic collarless Chanel suit. Before her influence, women’s clothing was only sexy in so far as it created an exaggerated hourglass figure, showed off boobs, and combined as many colors, feathers, beads and baubles as a person could possibly cram on to a single dress. Then Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel, the rebellious French orphan raised by nuns (no joke, seriously), insisted that women’s clothing be simple, elegant, and above all, comfortable. She showed that this kind of clothing could be even more beautiful because it allows a woman to act more comfortably as herself, and after all, it’s the woman that makes the dress, not the other way around.
2. She made practicality fabulous. When she began to debut her designs, many people shunned them as inappropriate. Within less than a decade, they became the norm. This is because she was designing clothes that actually worked for women. She designed clothing that women could move, work, and live in. She first gained prominence in WWI when she developed the “working costume” for women who took over the jobs of fighting men. She always considered the various body types of women and designed to flatter as many women as possible. For example, she believed that the hem of a dress should never be lifted above the knee, because not all women have lovely knees (I must say that me and my weirdly shaped knees appreciate this idea). And importantly, she was economical. She created her first little black dress because she was on vacation and hadn’t brought anything warm enough to wear. It was created out of a black jersey fabric that had been discarded by others.
3. She is one of the great unsung feminists of the 20th century. She was one of the only female fashion designers of her time, which she embraced as an advantage rather than a hinderance. She consistently chose unconventional models to force new ideals of femininity. She had many love affairs, but never married despite several conventionally attractive offers. She frequently wore menswear in public. Picasso called her “the most sensible woman in the world.” Winston Churchill admired her as “one of the most intelligent, nice and very strong women” he had ever dealt with. She claimed that “women have always been the strong ones of the world. The men are always seeking from women a little pillow to put their heads down on. They are always longing for the mother who held them as infants.”
4. She’s a Come Back Kid. The economic environment of WWII forced her to close up shop. She retired as a designer, moved to Switzerland, and was completely socially ostracized due to a very scandalous love affair. As WWII ended, Christian Dior emerged as the top designer in France with his “New Look”, designing “women as flowers” and putting them in the hyper-feminine dresses with the nipped in waists and full skirts that we now associate with the 50’s. Other male designers followed suit. Because she believed these designers had gone astray, she developed a new line in 1954, at the age of 70 and after 14 years of retirement, which once again championed the simple, elegant, comfortable designs she had. This iconic line included the first of the classic boxy Chanel suit.