Fashion Designer Coco Chanel

Published on July 8th, 2009 | by Yellow Magpie


Coco Chanel: A Woman Before Her Time

Coco Chanel

From humble beginnings, Gabrielle Coco Chanel rose to become one of the most prominent fashion designers in France, with her influences still shaping fashion today.

Responsible for liberating women from the tight fitting clothing of the day, Coco Chanel was indeed a woman before her time.

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel

Although we now take comfortable and loose fitting clothing  for granted, before Chanel women were constrained and boxed in, in tight fitting clothing with hardly room to breath. Coco represented freedom, possibilities and the ability to express oneself through clothing.

Before Coco there were endless corsets forcing women to measure up against some stereotypical notion of the ‘ideal woman’. Women in effect were prisoners of their own clothing.

Coco Chanel And Women's Corsets Bianca Lyons Photo By E. Chickering

Coco Chanel And Women’s Corsets Bianca Lyons Photo By E. Chickering

Coco tore up all these quaint and ridiculous notions and for the first time offered women choice. They could be more true to themselves and reflect their personality through their clothing. Chanel offered self-expression a rare thing indeed in the world of 1920s Europe.

However while Coco brought liberation to women through her clothing, the early days  of her own life were anything but liberating, and she was little more than a ‘kept woman’, for many wealthy and influential men long before she became famous for her clothing.

Early Origins

Born illegitimately in Saumur, France , on August 19, 1883, Gabrielle’s mother died when she was still a child, leaving her to be reared in an orphanage, run by nuns. It was the black and white habit worn by the nuns that was later to inspire her unique designs for women, notably the ‘little black dress.

Coco Chanel In 1920

Coco Chanel In 1920

A Different Choice: A Different Path

On leaving the orphanage, the nuns secured her a job as a seamstress. However, Gabrielle had other plans, and was determined to make her fortune. She tried her hand at a number of jobs, including actress, horse-rider and cabaret singer. One of the popular songs she sang at a cafe where she worked, was ‘Ko Ko Ri Ko’ or ‘cock-a-doodle-do’.

The rather uncouth clientele would shout ‘Qui Qu’a Vu Coco’, soon everyone was calling Gabrielle, Coco, and she didn’t object when the name stuck.

Early Coco Chanel Hat Photo By Talbot

Early Coco Chanel Hat Photo By Talbot

Affairs and Friendships

Coco, became the paramour of many a rich man who often used her for sex and dropped her unceremoniously afterwards. While many of these men fell in love with Coco she did not have the correct social status to marry. However these men opened the door to wealthy society and helped to set her up in business.

Her relationship with one of these ‘sugar daddies’ allowed Coco to open her own millinery boutique. From there she became friends with the rich and famous of Paris, among them Diaghilev, Salvador Dali and Picasso. One of her most famous affairs was with the Duke of Westminster. It was he who inspired her to design the soft-belted coat, blazers, and tweed jackets, for women.

Coco Chanel And Etienne Balsan

Coco Chanel And Etienne Balsan

She also drew her fashion influences from nature, and the Camellia flower became a favourite. Coco was seen on many occasions wearing the Camellia, and it soon became her trademark.

Chanel Number 5

In 1921, Coco Chanel, working with Ernest Beatux, launched the famous, Chanel No. 5 perfume. Coco had been introduced to Beatux by another royal lover, Grand Duke Dimitry of Russia. The perfume was a mix of 128 ingredients, including jasmine which was the base note of the perfume. The creation of Chanel Number 5, was to immortalise Coco forever.

Coco Chanel Chanel No. 5

Coco Chanel Chanel No. 5

Coco Chanel’s Little Black Dress

1925, saw the creation of the Chanel cardigan jacket, followed in 1928 with her first tweed outfit. However, Coco Chanel, is probably best remembered for the iconic ‘little black dress’, which she designed in 1926. Because of its versatility, the black dress is still considered a fashion must in every woman’s wardrobe, and can be either dressed up or dressed down depending on the occasion. Coco’s favourite way to wear the dress was with a string of pearls.

During World War 1, Chanel famously had an affair with a Nazi officer, which reduced some of her popularity, and she went to live for a while in Switzerland. Despite this on her return in 1954, she quickly re-instated herself, and her fashions, once again became all the rage.

Coco Chanel, worked up until she died in 1971, at the age of 88, by then she had moved into the Ritz Hotel, where she had taken up residence in 1939.

Coco Chanel Inspired Little Black Dress Photo By M.N.A. van den Bogaart Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Coco Chanel Inspired Little Black Dress Photo By M.N.A. van den Bogaart Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence


As a trendsetter, women can thank Coco for taking them out of tight corsets and into comfortable clothes often inspired by men’s clothing. An astute woman, with a good head for business, Coco, was before her time and left us with an enduring heritage which will always be associated with classic style and elegance.

A film about the life of Coco Chanel, is currently receiving rave reviews,  ‘Coco Before Chanel‘  stars Audrey Tautou, check it out.

Chanel Quotes

‘There is no time for cut-and-dried monotony. There is time for work.  And time for love. That leaves no other time!’

‘Youth is something very new: twenty years ago no one mentioned it.’

‘In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.’

Check out Yellow Magpie’s Coco Chanel Quotes: A Trailblazing Maverick Speaks to find out what Coco Chanel thought about men, women and

Recommended Reading And Chanel Products

Chanel and Her World and Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962 are two excellent biographies of both her life and her impact on culture and fashion.

For other interesting products and perfumes click on-Coco Chanel T-ShirtCoco Mademoiselle by Chanel for Women 1.2 oz Fresh Hair Mist and Chanel Coco Mademoiselle By Chanel For Women.
For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access Chanel and Her WorldCoco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962 and Coco Mademoiselle by Chanel For Women here.
For those who live in Canada, you can obtain Chanel and Her World and Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962.
For Germany: Chanel and Her WorldCoco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962Coco Chanel T-Shirt, and Coco Mademoiselle by Chanel For Women.
For France: Chanel and Her World and Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962.



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