Friday, May 17, 2013

Mademoiselle Chanel

Take an inventory of everything you have in your closet. Do you have t-shirts? Sweaters? A black dress? Skirts shorter than ankle length? Costume jewelry? If you said yes to any of those, it’s all thanks to Coco Chanel. (On the other hand, if you said no to all of those, you must be from the past).

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to go and see the Chanel flagship store on 31 Rue Cambon in Paris. It is not only one of the crown jewels of French fashion, but it is one of the most important brands of all time. “Why?” you ask? Here’s why...

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was born to be different. She was born to a poor laundry woman and a peddler of odds and ends. When she was twelve years old her mother died and her father abandoned her and her sisters to have an austere upbringing in a convent in a time of opulent and downright ridiculous fashion.

Well-dressed ladies of the time would always be wearing rib-crushing corsets, feathered hats, heavy skirts, over-the-top jewelry, and way too many silk flowers. The result of these ensembles was often a disastrous case of too much fashion (yes, I said too much fashion).

Her humble upbringing and acquired sense of luxury from being the lover of two aristocrats made for a timeless and revolutionary take on early 20th-century fashion. Her iconic pieces exemplify this.

She was the creator of the classic Chanel suit (hence the name). These suits were inspired by the suits she found in Étienne Balsan and Arthur Capel’s closets. This doesn’t seem terribly exciting to our 21st-century sensibilities, but compared to the ostentatious fashion of the time, this was revolutionary. They had shorter, less restrictive skirts, and best of all, you didn’t have to wear a corset with them.

She was also the pioneer of the little black dress. While many male fashion critics complained about the lack of shape of the original LBDs, the editor of Vogue praised the la garçonne look and female customers ate the look up.

Imagine standing in an elevator with a bunch of people who were not only wearing too much perfume but who also who haven’t bathed in a week. This was the reality of the early 20th century where the sole purpose of wearing perfume was to cover up terrible BO.

Cue the entrance of Chanel No. 5.

Say what you will about it smelling like your grandmother, this non-floral perfume smelled simple, clean, and refreshing. Perfume was no longer a necessity for hygiene; it was a fashion accessory.

Chanel adored camellias—quite possibly due to Dumas’s La Dame aux Camélias. You will often see a simple, bouclé one attached to a Chanel suit or bag. As the woman working at the Chanel make-up store so enthusiastically told me, Camellias don’t have a scent in nature, so Mademoiselle Chanel would always spray hers with Gardenia (my personal favorite Chanel scent).

In the early twentieth century, the well-dressed were obsessed with luxury jewelry. So what did Chanel give them? Even more luxury jewelry, but with a twist. While she was well known for simplicity, she would often be dripping in multiple strands of pearls accessorized with camellias. Her secret was that many of these pieces were made out of cheaper materials (although she did some collections with real gemstones) in order to accentuate the look.

Coco Chanel once said, “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” And, oh man, was she something different.


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  1. I love the idea of Chanel no. 5, I just can't wear it. It doesn't react well with my skin chemistry for some reason, which is...sad.
    -Hilary Latham

    1. Ooh! Hilary, I may have a solution for you. Wear a nice scarf (à la parisienne!) and spray the perfume on that. I was at the Chanel make-up store earlier this week and that's what the sales woman did. It's nice because it still smells a little. :)