“A woman has the age she deserves.”-Gabrielle Coco Chanel
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, at one time one of the richest women in the world, initially got her start in fashion by opening a small hat shop selling to the upper crust society of Paris’ polo scene.
Admired for her dark eyes and small frame, she was adored mostly because she had a style of dress different from ladies of the time who were were bound in corsets, smothered in long skirts and saddled under hat confections of straw weighted with masses of flowers and feathers.
Chanel did away with constricting corsets, sported small boater hats and dressed comfortably in pants or short skirts made of knits normally set aside for men’s underwear.
With WWII closing all the fashion houses in Paris, in 1939, Coco Chanel, the first lady of haute couture since the 1920s, retired completely from the fashion world and moved to Switzerland where she remained for 14 years quietly building her perfume empire, until her comeback in 1953-54 at the age of 70.
Of the comeback, you either loved Chanel’s efforts or wished she’d stay in retirement and relished headlines like: “A fiasco,” “Ghosts of 1930s gowns,” and “Out in the sticks with Chanel”.
Nevertheless within two years Coco was enjoying new found respect and was once again the darling of the fashion world.
Committed to her fashion sensibilities, she updated her signature looks and redesigned the classic tweed suits that made her famous and in 1957, at a time when Christian Dior was the king of fashion, Coco received the Nieman-Marcus couture Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion, declaring her the most influential dress designer of the century.
The “Chanel” suit (originally appearing in the 1930s) became a status symbol for a new generation all over again.
Somewhere I read, a Chanel suit is like a “station wagon come to town,” comfortable and under-dressed it’s an “international uniform, that’s more informative than a passport”.
Putting it simply, it’s a basic little tailored suit.
Known for much more than dressmaking Chanel was the first couturier to create accessories for her designs. After all, wearing a Chanel suit meant looking the part. This meant adhering to the tradition of accessorizing the classic with Coco’s signature trademarks: chain necklaces, chain belts, scarves, beige shoes with black toes, leather gloves, a small hat, a quilted leather handbag with a chain handle and, of course, wearing Chanel No. 5.
Chanel, once considered one of the best dressed women in the world, was also an astute business woman.
By all accounts, Coco wasn’t warm and affectionate. In fact, it’s said most people feared her sharp, biting tongue. She didn’t like pretense and was surprisingly outspoken.
Of French women she said, “They want to be like American women, but they never will.” Of American women, “They trap men, train them and eat them.” Of women in general, “If women only understood that men are nothing but babies, the world wouldn’t be in the mess it is.”
Although Coco was pursued and courted by some of the wealthiest aristocratic men in the world, she never married or had children. She lived a solitary life, dying alone in her hotel room in 1971 at 87.
I imagine her doing what she loved most-creating, wearing her “uniform”-a jersey suit with violet braids, a round hat, three-string pearl necklace, a pair of shears hanging from her neck, an arm full of dangling bracelets, staring at the back of the room of models and designers sitting patiently-lovingly-like schoolchildren- on chairs waiting to be called up by Coco.
Make Your Own
One way to achieve Chanel’s iconic look is with a simple collarless jacket pattern. Trim it with a floral embroidered tape of gold and black, and with gold soutache braid. The jacket can be worn with a matching skirt, or over a black dress. Craftsy has a class: The Iconic Tweed Jacket, that is a great starting point.
Metallic gold corded piping; metallic gold on black woven tape; metallic gold soutache braid.
All of the trim is applied before facings, pockets and lining are sewn to the jacket.
Applying the trim
• Around neckline and center front edges, stitch the gold piping to the right side of the jacket on the seam line with the cord facing toward the body of the jacket. It’s easier applying the trim if you use a cording or zipper foot machine attachment.
• Measure in 3/8 inches from the stitching on the piping and mark all around neckline and center fronts, using this mark as a guide for one edge of the tape. Stitch tape to jacket along both edges.
• Measure in 3/8 inch from inside edge of tape all around neckline and center fronts, then using this line as a guide; apply soutache braid by stitching down its center.
• Sleeves: Follow the same instructions as you did for the neckline and front edges.
• Pockets: The trim must be applied before pockets are hemmed and lined. Mark hemline on all pockets. Then, right on the hemline, top-stitch a row of soutache braid. Measure down 3/8 inches and stitch metallic gold tape along both edges as you did before. Measure down 3/8 inches from tape edges and stitch another row of soutache braid.
• Turn under the pocket hem, insert lining; turn sides and bottom edge of pocket under ¼ inches and press. Pin pockets in place and carefully slip-stitch it to the jacket. Trimmed patch pockets shouldn’t’ be top-stitched to jacket by machine.
Stitch facing to jacket, stitching on first row of stitching on piping, then turn the facing to the wrong side and press. Then continue as you would.