HerStory: Creator Of The Little Black Dress Lives On

HerStory: Creator Of The Little Black Dress Lives On

Coco Chanel is still alive in fashion. But more than that, she was a woman who turned every tragedy, every difficulty into art; simply picked herself up after every fall and went ahead

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Friday, August 25, 2023, 05:15 PM IST
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Just how far the influence of a designer goes can be gauged by how quickly and for how long their products make it to the market in fakes. Today, a working class woman can pick up a quilted purse with the entwined CC logo, at a fraction of the price of the real thing, without knowing where the design originated and who CC was. The guy selling it will knowingly say it is a “Channel” and that it is a coveted brand.

Earlier this month (August 19) was the 140th birth anniversary of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, whose name appears on bags, perfumes, jewellery and, of course, timeless garments she designed. It’s been about a century since that iconic and expensive perfume Chanel No 5 (a documentary on Docubay goes into its origins and manufacture) was launched, and it still remains the preferred scent of the rich and famous. Women wear trousers, tweed skirt suits and the Little Black Dress, without knowing that Coco Chanel had a hand in getting them out there into the world of fashion.

Till the early 20th century, women’s fashions were fussy, corseted, uncomfortable and time-consuming to wear. Coco Chanel introduced a casual style without sacrificing feminine elegance that women looked for before the era of casual chic. She is, according to information on the net, the only fashion designer in Time Magazine’s list of 100 most influential people of the 20th century. There have been dozens of books, films, documentaries and a stage musical about her life and work, which was exciting and trendsetting.

Vivian Song wrote in a tribute piece in bbc.com, “In fashion folklore, Gabrielle Chanel is famously credited as the designer who popularised trousers, making them a key piece in women's wardrobes, and also for helping to liberate women from the tyranny of the corset. Instead of caging them in stuffy, superfluous designs, her clothes prioritised freedom of movement, mobility and comfort. She broke down sartorial codes by borrowing elements of men's fashion, such as pockets and tweed, and erased waistlines and bustlines to create androgynous silhouettes. Like any good trailblazer, Chanel's defiance of societal and gender norms early in her career befuddled some, and inspired others.”

Like many women of her era, who could not imagine having careers and businesses of their own, Chanel’s journey was tough. She was born to Eugenie, a laundry woman and Albert, a street vendor, in a charity hospital. To even dream of fame and wealth from that position of poverty would have been impossible for any girl. Gabrielle and her five siblings never went to school; her brothers worked as farm labour, she and her sisters were sent to a Catholic orphanage. It was there she learnt to sew, because being a seamstress was one of the few career options for poor girls. For her, it inadvertently pointed the way to her future. (She lied about her birth and her past, when she became famous, but her biographers were dogged researchers.)

She found work as a seamstress and also performed on the stage and the cabaret and somewhere on the way acquired the nickname Coco, which later became her calling card.

The only way out of that hand-to-mouth, exploitative and uncertain existence was to become the mistress of a rich man, and for Chanel it was the aristocratic Etienne Balsan, who showered her with gifts and showed her a glimpse of a privileged lifestyle. It was, however, her relationship with Balsan’s friend, Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel that changed her life. She lived in his apartment in Paris, and he funded her first shop. Their affair lasted nine years, and though he married a woman of his own class, his death was devastating for Chanel.

She began her designing career as a milliner and opened a boutique named Chanel Modes in Paris. She was very successful and also turned out to be a smart businesswoman. By 1919, she was a registered couturier and was on the way to becoming a fashion legend. She used her connections to wealthy and fashionable men and women, and moved around in elite circles, which was remarkable for a woman who came from nowhere. A close friend, Misia Sert is quoted as talking of Chanel’s “genius, lethal wit, sarcasm and maniacal destructiveness, which intrigued and appalled everyone.”

She went through a series of advantageous social-climbing relationships, but never married. Her sphere of influence extended to British and European aristocracy and right up to Hollywood. According to her biographies, she was accused of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II, but slithered out of any damage it might have caused to her reputation due to her friends in high places.

In spite of other skilled fashion designers entering the scene, her influence hardly ever faded. Controversy and competition never fazed her, she had the amazing ability to get out of every challenging situation unscathed.

According to a piece by Colin McDowell in the businessoffashion.com, Coco Chanel came in at the right time with the ideas that were needed during times of austerity necessitated by the War. “The 1914-1918 war was not a time for extravagance and the privations of war made women more receptive to simplicity then they might otherwise have been. Chanel was increasingly intrigued by the casual elegance of men's clothing, especially for wear in the country, and took many ideas from Capel's wardrobe, which were the basis for what was, by the end of the war a good business, with a Couture house registered in rue Cambon and a thriving establishment “pour le sport” in Biarritz. Both exemplified the principles that illuminated Coco Chanel's entire designing life: the luxury of simplicity; the insistence on perfection of workmanship and quality of materials and perhaps, her most lasting gift to fashion; the need for a fashionable woman to be slim and keep slim throughout her entire life… I believe her “little black dress” of the ’20s was inspired by three things. Firstly Chanel recognised the need for post-war mourning — even for young women — but thought that it could be more chic than the traditional women’s needs. Secondly, she wanted women to stop looking downtrodden and destroyed with grief. So she turned to formal menswear; the stiff white collar and starched cuffs made a chic declaration of masculine conformity and superiority. Add to this the grim memory of the nuns, whom she never ceased to hate, in their black habits and white coifs, and the fact that spicing the black of a dress with white collar and cuffs perversely made an aristocrat into a indoor servant who served the tea and ran the bath water, and you have the sort of complex Rubik cube that so much of Chanel’s fashion had.”

Famous women wearing Chanel, other designers copying her, and years after her death in 1971, Coco Chanel is still alive in fashion. But more than that, she was a woman who turned every tragedy, every difficulty into art; simply picked herself up after every fall and went ahead.

(Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author)

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