‘Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance,’ Chanel once said, and the motifs that made up her distinctive wardrobe remain just as important today as they did 70 years ago, writes Emily Cope.
When Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel died in her Ritz hotel suite on January 10, 1971, the world mourned the loss of one of its greatest fashion designers. While she remains one of the most formative couturiers of the century — her fashion empire lives on in her namesake brand — her life was just as controversial as it was stylish.
Raised in a French orphanage before moving to Paris in 1908, Chanel soon became synonymous with a new style of dressing that did away with corsets and excessive layers of trimmings and tulles, instead embracing a more androgynous shape — a trend which has truly stood the test of time.
“Coco Chanel was probably the most talented designer the world has ever seen,” says celebrity stylist Alex Longmore.
“She was zeitgeist and changed the face of women’s fashion forever, rebelling from the femininity and opulence that had gone before her and introducing the Paris couture scene to minimalism in the 1920s.”
Already a well-known fashion designer by the time the Second World War broke out, Chanel spent much of the war in the luxurious Hotel Ritz — a privilege permitted to few non-Germans — with her German officer lover, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage.
According to Hal Vaughan, author of Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, acting as a Nazi agent was “part of [Chanel’s] daily life”. He says she worked as a spy for German military intelligence during the occupation.
Once the war ended, the fashion designer did much to distance herself from her illicit connections, continuing to work in the fashion industry until her death at the age of 87.
She garnered dozens of high-profile fans including — while she was still alive — Jackie Kennedy and Katherine Hepburn, as well as more recently Amal Clooney, Princess Diana and Miley Cyrus.
“Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance,” Chanel famously once said, and the motifs that made up her distinctive wardrobe — monochrome, tweeds, pearls and quilted handbags — remain just as pertinent today as they did 70 years ago.
Her legacy lives on through her fashion brand, now under the direction of Virginie Viard after a 36-year custodianship by Karl Lagerfeld, who died in 2019.
A testament to the designer’s timeless taste, here are the wardrobe staples we still have Coco Chanel to thank for in 2021.
THE TWEED SUIT
Chanel saw women’s fashion in the 1950s as too constrained and unsuited to the era, states her namesake website.
“I really care about women,” she said. “I want to dress them in suits that make them feel at ease, but that still emphasise femininity.”
This idea, simple and yet revolutionary, led to the birth of the tweed suit, and with it the iconic Chanel jacket which now sells worldwide and can cost upwards of £5,000.
Fashion extraordinaire Anna Wintour is often spotted sporting the much-coveted item, along with Margot Robbie, Kristen Stewart and Michelle Obama.
“The Chanel version of the boucle jacket is one of the most sought after luxury fashion items in the world. Even second-hand versions keep a costly price tag,” explains Longmore.
“Other designers and high street stores — especially Zara — have emulated this look time and time again, and continue to do so today. It’s a statement style that will never go out of fashion.”
THE PADDED LEATHER HANDBAG
As bag trends come and go, few design houses stand the test of time as firmly as the 2.55 Chanel bag.
Fed up of hand-carried and cumbersome handbags, in February 1955 (thus the 2.55 moniker) Chanel debuted the shoulder-carried version and changed handbag history.
“For the first time, it was acceptable for women of considerable social status to carry a bag on their shoulders,” says the Chanel website.
THE LITTLE BLACK DRESS
Made world famous by Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the little black dress actually originates from Coco Chanel’s design in the 1920s.
In 1926, Vogue published a drawing of Chanel’s simple black dress with long narrow sleeves, calling it “a sort of uniform for all women of taste” — and they weren’t wrong.
Nowadays the LBD is a wardrobe staple — even for those less interested in fashion — and it’s one of the most popular red carpet looks, with Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie and former face of Chanel, Emma Watson, often photographed in the dress.
THE TWO-TONE SHOE
In 1957, after she’d already made the little black dress, the tweed suit and the quilted handbag — all firm essentials in women’s wardrobes — Chanel decided to add a new note to a woman’s allure: two-tone shoes.
Taking the form of a beige and black slingback shoe and designed to be worn with every look and for every occasion, the two-tone shoe was a huge success.
“We step out in the morning in beige and black, we eat lunch in beige and black, we go to a cocktail party in beige and black. One is dressed from morning to night,” said Chanel at the time.
The shoe also boasts a secret advantage in its colours — the beige panel creates the illusion of a longer leg, while the black shortens the foot — and the trademark 5cm heel ensured a comfort that fitted perfectly with women’s lifestyles.
When Karl Lagerfeld arrived at the helm of the Chanel brand he brought the emblematic two-tone pump back to life again. Since then it has never stopped being reinvented, renewed and reworn.
Jewellery became a signature accessory that remains essential to the Chanel allure.
“Costume jewellery isn’t made to provoke desire, just astonishment at most. It must remain an ornament and an amusement,” said Chanel.
On top of marrying faux pearls with precious metals, Chanel designed jewellery that could change an entire look — think gold cuff bracelets, ornamental brooches and layering necklaces.
“Costume jewellery and especially over-sized pearls are so Chanel,” explained Longmore. “Even today you see people, young and old, wearing chunky necklaces or statement brooches.
“Almost all of them will have been inspired by Chanel somewhere down the line, even if they aren’t aware of it.”