At one point in her illustrious career, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel conducted her entire business out of a lover’s flat. Yet she never got married. She made her own rules in life, as in fashion. The iconic designer and founder of the house of Chanel was known most for bending the rules of gender in fashion. In this way, she gave women the freedom to dress for themselves and no one else. To me, this is the epitome of a true feminist wardrobe. As a designer, Chanel’s work was not necessarily just about liberating women from particular garments — such as skirts or corsets — but about offering them greater choice so that they could decide for themselves. If Chanel had never been so bold as to equalise gender when it came to fashion, we may never have considered blazers, pants or even pockets such natural pillars of modern womenswear.
According to Time Magazine, Coco Chanel “mixed up the vocabulary of male and female clothes and created fashion that offered the wearer a feeling of hidden luxury rather than ostentation”. At the time (early on in the 20th Century), some people appreciated the way that she pushed the social boundaries of fashion and rebelled against gender requirement therein. But a lot of her clothing wasn’t really understood or appreciated until much later. Not only did Chanel appropriate the styles, fabrics and garments typically worn by men, but she also appropriated sports clothing as part of her new language of fashion. Once deemed an area exclusively masculine, the design maverick chose to dress herself this way and let it carry through to her designs as well. The fashionable clothes at the time were very opulent and expensive, so when she couldn’t afford those garments, she simply rejected the whole idea and made her own. She took sports jackets and ties, or other articles commonly worn by men around the racetrack, where she was busy climbing the social ladders.
There are a number of common trends for which we now have Coco Chanel to thank. And amongst them are some of the more pragmatic foundations of the contemporary wardrobe that we now take for granted. Some people would argue that ‘feminist’ clothing typically reflects practicality — and Chanel gave us plenty of practical garments — but I would argue that a true feminist wardrobe actually has no rules or limitations, because women can and should feel inspired to dress their own bodies however they damn well please. Of course, this is also what Coco Chanel allowed us to do. When she freed women from corsets, she didn’t stipulate that they could never wear them, only that they had a choice in the matter. Where pockets were earlier confined to men’s clothing only, she bucked tradition and included as many pockets as possible throughout her collections; a move that quickly made pockets a very natural part of everyday womenswear. Similarly, Chanel rubbished the idea that pants should be gender specific and gave women the freedom of choice in this regard too. The classic suit was once a symbol of male professionalism and so she reinvented the wheel to give women their own version of that too; a boxy, collarless jacket with a well-fitted matching skirt. It was a nod to understated elegance, but also intellectual equality like never before. In other words, Coco Chanel was not afraid to disrupt the status quo.
As Time points out, Chanel probably “would not have defined herself as a feminist — in fact, she consistently spoke of femininity rather than of feminism — yet her work is unquestionably part of the liberation of women.” Other influential designers like Miuccia Prada have noted her sense of genius, pointing to that fiercely independent spirit of hers. But the real genius of Coco Chanel, as far as I’m concerned, is that her view of femininity was decades ahead of its time. It was not one clipped and controlled by presumptions of ‘decorum’, but one inherently free and independent. A sort of ‘anything goes’ mentality. Of course, the house of Chanel has changed a great deal since then and, indeed, so has the nature of fashion. Now it is a giant, multi-national company helmed by an eighty-something-year-old man with white hair and fingerless gloves. Almost everything costs an arm and a leg, but there are still whispers of Coco Chanel somewhere in there too. That classic boxy jacket, for example — once a symbol of defiance. Or the pantsuit that felt so revolutionary when first introduced. If nothing else, this is why I look forward to the spectacle that is fashion week and the pièce de résistance that is Chanel in Paris. Because somewhere at the heart of that brand remains the woman that I consider to be fashion’s first lady of feminist dressing.
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