Term Paper: CO Chanel Today

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[. . .] Dissatisfied with this "New Look," Coco Chanel emerged from retirement and, at age 71, returned to design. The result was one of the most enduring of all Chanel designs -- the Chanel suit. Her focus was to create clothing that was comfortable for the wearer and still pleasing to the eye of the beholder (Haedrich, p.18).

Chanel's first anti-New Look suit was made of heavy wool jersey in navy blue. This 1954 collection was not well-received in Europe, and some analysts attribute this to the designer's known anti-Semitism and her affair with a Nazi officer during the German occupation.

Chanel's reputation, however, was not as tainted across the Atlantic Ocean. In the United States, women rallied around Chanel's second collection. Unlike the cinched-in, hourglass shapes of the Dior collection, the new Chanel jacket were crafted from lighter, more comfortable fabrics like silk and tweed. A gold chain hidden inside the jacket's waist served to weigh the jacket down. Chanel also had a ribbon sewn into the waistband of the skirt to keep a shirt from coming untucked. These hidden touches contributed to a neater and refined look that still allowed women to move. A side-zipper, another innovation, made getting dressed an easier process (Sischy).

By the late 1960s, the Chanel suit was a uniform again, in the same way the black jersey dresses were a uniform for working women in the 1920s. However, there was a major difference. Chanel suits were now much more expensive. After emerging from retirement, the first collections were couture collections. They were thus limited to wealthy women who could afford trips to Paris for fittings, on top of the prices of the suits themselves.

However, by 1978, the House of Chanel went to the designer's roots once again by offering the suit as part of ready-to-wear collections. The challenge, however, was to manufacture a suit that embodied both the design and the quality of an original Chanel couture while being more affordable for working women. The results of their efforts are suits that embody Chanel's original design and materials. Though these suits still sell for $3,000, this price represents a fraction of what such a suit would cost in its haute couture version.

Spirit of change

The 20th century was a decade of much social changes. It saw the decline of a strict class system in the United States and in Western Europe. It also saw the dawn of the feminist movement, as women shed the restraints of their clothing and of socially-imposed norms.

Part of Coco Chanel's innovations was that clothes should be free of "ludicrous trimmings and fussy bits and pieces" (cited in Warner). This simplicity meant that the woman -- rather than the clothing and accessories -- would take center stage. This represented an important step in feminism, because prior to working outside the home, women were mostly confined to the dome and limited to domestic duties. The lack of ornamentation of Chanel's fashion meant that clothing only served as a backdrop to its wearer. Considering the prevailing attitudes of the time, this idea was itself revolutionary.

Second, Chanel did not focus her attention solely on elite women. She began by designing clothes for working women. Towards this, she used "ignoble" fabrics like wool and jersey, and she legitimized the use of costume jewelry.

In addition, Chanel demanded that clothing should allow a woman to move and be active. Instead of forcing a woman to conform to an idealized shape -- such as an hourglass -- Chanel insisted that clothes should conform to a woman's body and more importantly, to her needs. A woman needs to be able to do things, such as walk, run up a staircase or get into a gondola with ease.

In her designs, Chanel introduced the revolutionary concept that clothing must serve women's needs. In doing so, the Chanel collections embodied the spirit of change that characterized the energy and youthfulness of the 20th century.

Bibliography

Dunn, Jennifer. "Coco Chanel and Fashion." Transcription Topics. 20 December 1999. University of California at Santa Barbara. 13 March 2004 http://transcriptions.english.ucsb.edu/archive/topics/infoart/chanel/.

This website offers a complete and insightful account of Coco Chanel's designs. The first section provides a good resource not only regarding the "look" of Chanel's designs. In addition, this website is useful for identifying how Chanel's "look" evolved in relation to prevailing social norms. The sections on the role both World Wars played in changing the social roles of women were especially illuminating. While many Internet sites on Coco Chanel focus on the designs, Dunn's scholarly approach teases out how designs such as the "working uniform" and the "Chanel suit" both reflect social trends and open new opportunities for working women.

Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. New York: Henry Hold and Company, Inc.

It is well-known that many of the stories regarding Coco Chanel's past are just fabrications. Many were in fact spread by Chanel herself. Considering this, Madsen does a remarkable job of presenting a thorough biography of one of the 20th century's most innovative women. Madsen's work, however, shows some weaknesses. He often underestimates, for example, the importance of the class system and social cachet in early 20th century Europe. This leads him to wonder why associations with royalty and powerful men were important to a modern woman like Coco Chanel. Despite this, his work is an interesting account of how Chanel managed to rise to the top of the fashion industry. The illustrations and Madsen's novelistic style of writing make this book both entertaining and informative.

Wallach, Janet. Chanel: Her Style and Her Life. New York: Nan A. Talese.

In this book, author Janet Wallach presents another good biography of the influential 20th century designer. Wallach chronicles the growth of Chanel's fame as well as the innovations of her designs. The use of lavish, black and white photographs further enhance Wallach's story-telling. However, the most interesting parts of the book also delve into Chanel's many love affairs. Unlike many sentimental Chanel biographies which shy away from controversy, Wallach also delves into Chanel's affair with a Nazi officer during the German occupation of Paris. In sum, though, the book is a standard biography that offers details about Chanel's personal life and her achievements.

There is little context relating Chanel's influence on modern fashion and on the women's movement as a whole. The book also does not discuss the importance and revolutionary nature of her designs, and of the role these innovations played in redefining how women express femininity through fashion.

Warner, Judith. "The Chanel Suit: Always in Style." Town and Country. January 2002: 92-100.

This article discusses the enduring importance of one of Coco Chanel's most important designs -- the Chanel suit. It offers a detailed description of the suit's creation, from fabric, material, cut, construction and price. Furthermore, the article also discusses how the suit itself articulates Chanel's vision regarding how clothes should complement a woman's lifestyle. Instead of being a standard "fashion" piece focusing on design, this article also locates the importance of Chanel's vision in relation to other well-known designers such as Christian Dior. Through these comparisons, Warner approaches the issue of Chanel's designs in a larger context, in relation to how different people define expressions of femininity.

Gabrielle Chanel." Wikipedia. available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabrielle_Chanel

Haedrich, Marcel. Coco Chanel: Her Life, Her Secrets. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1972.

Hollander, Anne. Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. New York: Henry Hold and Company, Inc.

Sischy, Ingrid. "The Designer: Coco Chanel." Time. June 8, 1998: 98-101.

Wallach, Janet. Chanel: Her Style and Her Life. New York: Nan A. Talese.

Warner, Judith. "The Chanel Suit: Always in… [END OF PREVIEW]

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