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Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel

Influential Fashion Designer



At home in Paris in 1929, Coco Chanel wears an ensemble of her signature jersey.

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Chanel's Design Influences
Most fashion designers come and go without leaving much in the way of a lasting legacy, but a few designers remain influential on current fashion long after they're gone. Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was one of the most influential fashion designers of the 1900s, and her fashion innovations and signature styles are still with us. They include:
  • boyish chemise styles
  • knits, such as jersey, used in women's clothing
  • cardigans and twin sets
  • small, quilted logo handbags with long chains as shoulder straps
  • tweed suits with boxy cardigan jackets and pencil skirts
  • Chanel No. 5 perfume
  • trousers for women
  • long strands of faux pearls
  • the little black dress

Chanel's Innovations That Work for Petites
Especially workable for petite women are Chanel-inspired drapey knit clothing, cardigans and twin sets, small handbags with long chain handles, long strands of faux pearls, and, last but not least, the iconic little black dress, which petite women can easily use as a base for monochromatic dressing.

Chanel, Designer of Simplicity
I would say that Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883 - 1971) was the most outstanding fashion designer of the 1920s. Her biographer, Axel Madsen, attributes Chanel's love for simple styles, which have since become classic, to the fact that Chanel "was not good at perpetual innovation."

A part of the lure of Chanel's style was that "she had her workrooms execute her creations with exquisite workmanship, and in luxurious, often striking fabrics." Chanel abhorred fads in clothing or anything that seemed eccentric. According to Elizabeth Ewing writing in History of Twentieth Century Fashion, Chanel's success was achieved "with collections featuring jersey wool dresses, straight-line classic evening gowns, often beautifully beaded, and, above all, the simple wool suits with cardigan jackets and plain or pleated skirts which have remained in fashion ever since." Chanel herself said, "I make fashions women can live in, breathe in, feel comfortable in and look younger in."

Chanel's Continuing Popularity
Although Coco Chanel died in 1971, the couture house of Chanel remains in business today. In 1990, Madsen wrote:

"Some twenty years after her death, the timeless appeal of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel reigns supreme. The Chanel look is everywhere, canonized and copied with more fervor than ever before. Fashionable without being forward, the Chanel suit achieved new currency and appropriateness, a look that was rich, refined and, above all, dressed. Women's clothing based on gentlemanly elements, suits with jackets that fit like sweaters, masses of bogus jewelry replacing the demure real stuff, little black dresses, crisp white shirts, gold buttons, pleated skirts, navy jackets, quilted bags, and the black-tipped sling-back shoes are staples in the wardrobes of professional women. In eclipse at those times when fashion favored eccentricity and exaggeration and in demand during periods of self-doubt and quests for certainties, Chanel's fashion is once more called eternally modern."

Chanel succeeded in adapting the straight, boyish line of 1920s style and turning it into a costume that well-to-do professional women found appealing.

Chanel's Style - From Paris to America
Starting in the 1920s, American buyers from department stores and manufacturers bought Chanel's models and copied them. Chanel also influenced Americans with her costume designs for Hollywood films where her work promoted the boyish styles in movies during the 1920s. Women who were eager to maintain a fashionable image observed what the film stars wore and copied their clothing. Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's influence in the world of fashion was just beginning, and it has continued to this day. Chanel's fashion house in Paris remains in business, and Karl Lagerfeld is its fashion designer. Celebrities, such as Keira Knightly, Nicole Kidman, and petite fashionistas Sarah Jessica Parker and Rachel Bilson continue their love affair with Chanel fashions, and women who cannot afford the pricey Chanel styles still would like to own a Chanel logo quilted handbag, but at least, they're able to make do with fashionable imitations.

Chanel-Inspired Shopping List


  • "Chanel News." http://www.chanel.com.
  • Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Twentieth Century Fashion. Lanham, MD: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992.
  • Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 1990.
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