Chanel’s Most Fashionable Moments
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 9/6/13

From the groundbreaking designs of founder Coco Chanel to the more recent innovations of her successor as head designer, Karl Lagerfeld, the house of Chanel has produced some of the most iconic and coveted looks the fashion world has championed over the past century. Quite simply, more than any other designer, Coco Chanel changed the way women dress—for the better. This map celebrates five of her signature creations.

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Coco Chanel  (1883–1971 | French fashion designer)
to  The Tweed Suit

In the mid-1920s Coco Chanel, who was outfitting wealthy women in Paris and the luxury resort town of Deauville, introduced a two-piece suit with a boxy, loose-fitting jacket inspired by men’s cardigan sweaters. The outfit at last liberated women from corsets—as Chanel commented, it was “made for a woman who moves”—and forever changed the way women dress. Combining style and durability, the slim-fitting skirt and simple collarless jacket were later fashioned from tweed, supplied by the factory that kept Chanel’s lover, the duke of Westminster, in his hunting attire. (When asked why she never married the duke, Chanel said with characteristic aplomb, “There have been several duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.”) Over the years, the Chanel suit has become as popular with the ladies who lunch as it has with female executives. Already a classic, it became the world’s most famous garment on November 22, 1963, when Jacqueline Kennedy wore a pink Chanel suit (possibly a knockoff) with a blue collar the day her husband was shot in Dallas. Allegedly, the president had helped his wife choose her clothes for the day, advising, “Be simple—show these Texans what good taste really is.”

Coco Chanel  (1883–1971 | French fashion designer)
to  The Little Black Dress

Coco Chanel created what may have been her own youthful version of widow’s weeds, the little black dress, after the great love of her life, English playboy Arthur “Boy” Capel, died in a car crash in 1919. The straight, clean-lined shift has been a staple of a well-dressed woman’s wardrobe ever since. In the 1920s Vogue referred to the garment as “a sort of uniform for all women of taste” and called it “Chanel’s Ford,” putting the Parisian couturier in company with the Detroit industrialist who first produced cars for the masses. So ubiquitous it’s known simply as the LBD, the little black dress is practical enough to be worn as business attire yet easily accessorized for evening wear. It made its most famous star turn on the back of Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Hepburn’s LBD was designed by Givenchy, but imitation, of course, is the sincerest form of flattery—or, as Chanel once said, “A fashion that does not reach the streets is not a fashion.”

The Little Black Dress
to  Chanel No. 5

Ironically, the woman who once said, “Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance”—a guiding principle behind her signature innovation of the little black dress—created one of the most complex and enduring perfumes of all time. In 1921 Coco Chanel introduced Chanel No. 5, the fragrance that over the decades would become as much of a classic as her couture. She commissioned Ernest Beaux, a perfumer for the czarina of Russia, to create what Chanel called “a perfume like nothing else, a woman’s perfume, with the scent of a woman.” Beaux took his inspiration from the scent of the frosty air and frozen lakes and rivers of the Arctic, but Chanel said the intricate formula Beaux concocted evoked the jasmine in the gardens of the convent where she was raised, as well as the aromas of “linens boiled in copper pots scented with dried iris root, linen cupboards lined with pungent rosewood and verbena, and floors, walls and bodies scoured with raw tallow soap.” The iconic bottle, altered only slightly since the 1920s, is said to have been inspired by the flacons of cologne and whiskey Chanel’s favorite lover, Arthur “Boy” Capel, carried in his leather traveling case.

Chanel No. 5
to  Coco Chanel  (1883–1971 | French fashion designer)

“A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future,” Coco Chanel once said. A woman who splashes on some Chanel No. 5 may think, if swayed by advertising, she is investing in nothing short of rapture. The scent has been linked to beauty and romance since the 1950s, when an interviewer asked Marilyn Monroe what she wore to bed at night and she answered, “Why, a few drops of Chanel No. 5, of course.” Catherine Deneuve, Audrey Tautou and Nicole Kidman are among the glamorous stars who have been spokeswomen for the famous fragrance. Astute businesswoman that she was, Chanel assured herself a bright future when she determined that more money could be made in scent than in clothing. She allegedly told master perfumer Ernest Beaux, who had given her a test vial marked “No. 5,” “I present my dress collections on the fifth of May, the fifth month of the year, so we will let this sample number five keep the name it has already. It will bring good luck.” As indeed it did. The fragrance made Chanel one of the world’s richest women; estimates claim a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is sold every 30 seconds.

The Chanel Logo
to  Coco Chanel  (1883–1971 | French fashion designer)

Coco Chanel introduced her logo—two interlocking C initials, one facing forward, the other backward—in 1925, but the woman born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel had changed her first name years earlier. Working as a seamstress by day and performing in cabarets at night, she was greeted with cheers of “Coco!” when she sang the song “Who’s Seen Coco in the Trocadero?” By the mid-1920s Chanel was dressing aristocracy out of her salon on the Rue Cambon in Paris and had introduced such classics as the simple suit, the little black dress and the Chanel No. 5 fragrance. She closed up shop during World War II, and after the war she went into self-imposed exile in Switzerland amid accusations that she had collaborated with the Nazis. Chanel reestablished her business in 1953. As rich and famous as many of the women she had dressed, she lived at the Ritz and was often photographed in a Chanel tweed suit with a quilted leather handbag (her signature “2.55” model) hanging from her arm. The Chanel logo is an enduring fixture in the fashion world, appearing subtly on the clasp of the 2.55 and boldly across myriad counterfeit items.

The 2.55 Bag
to  Coco Chanel  (1883–1971 | French fashion designer)

Coco Chanel was a practical woman. When she grew tired of juggling a handbag, a glass of champagne and canapés at receptions, she designed a purse that could be hung from the arm or shoulder on a chain, leaving the hands free. The 2.55, so called because Chanel introduced the bag in February 1955, was full of associations for the designer. She patterned the straps on the key chains caretakers wore at the convent orphanage where she was raised after her mother’s death, and the burgundy lining recalled the convent school uniforms. The quilted material composing the bag’s body paid homage to the jackets worn by the jockeys she had observed during many happy hours at the racetrack. She sewed a handy pocket outside the back of the bag to store loose cash and tucked another compartment into the inside of the front flap to stash a secret trove—in her case, perhaps, love letters from Hans Günther von Dincklage, the Nazi spy who had been her wartime paramour. Ever the pragmatist, Chanel excused this dubious association, saying, “A woman of my age cannot be expected to look at his passport if she has a chance of a lover.”

The Chanel Logo
to  The Little Black Dress

“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous,” Coco Chanel once said. Forty years after her death, the head designer and creative director at her fashion house, Karl Lagerfeld, ensures the Chanel label still helps a woman be both. A design icon in his own right, Lagerfeld took the reins in 1983 and approaches the Chanel classics with due reverence. “What I really love are little black dresses,” he has said, and he claims the tweed jacket is “what the two- and three-button suit is for men.” But he has created variations on both, often eschewing classic understatement to appeal to the edgy fashionista—vamping up the LBD and pairing the tweed jacket with denim and khaki. One Lagerfeld evening ensemble celebrates many of Chanel’s innovations: A logo-emblazoned tank top made of the jersey fabric Chanel pioneered for women’s wear (in her day used mainly for men’s underwear) sits atop a flouncy-skirted version of the little black dress, accented with an oversize chain belt. (“Women adore chains,” Chanel said of her signature handbag strap.) Even a purist can’t deny the look incorporates many elements of the house’s timeless style. As Chanel herself observed, “Fashion changes, but style endures.”