“The best things in life are free. The second best are very expensive.”
Well, my thrifty friends, if we needed any further justification for our sport, passion, and hobby, there it is! Chanel no doubt never entered anything remotely related to a thrift shop once she left her impoverished childhood behind, but she surely understood the desire to have something beautiful at little expense. After all, some of her most striking innovations were inspired by the need to economize—a reality of the wars she lived through, and, I suspect, of her difficult youth. One example: She began using jersey fabric in her designs because it was one of the least expensive options available during and after WW I; she continued using it because of its softness and drapability. Pre-Chanel, jersey had been used mainly in men’s underwear and bathing suits!
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Gabrielle Bonheur (Coco) Chanel knew a thing or two about the value of money. One of six children packed off to an orphanage by their father, a peddler, when their mother died, she was raised by nuns who taught her to sew.
Chanel put that skill to good use. Following a brief career as a cabaret singer (from whence may have come her nickname, short for “cocotte,” a kept woman), she opened a hat shop in Paris in 1909 and added women’s sportswear separates to her line in 1913. In 1915, she introduced her first couture line, and by 1923, when she was just 32, she had made herself a wealthy woman with an international clientele. Although Chanel closed her doors when France declared war on Germany in 1939, she staged a comeback in 1953—at the age of 70.
Coco had her share of lovers (apparently some women as well as men), among them the Duke of Westminster, then one of the richest men in Europe; Etienne Balsan and his friend Arthur “Boy” Capel, wealthy businessmen-about-town who funded her early fashion ventures (as other gentleman friends would fund later ones); the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky; and Nazi officer Hans Günther von Dincklage. But she chose not to marry, saying that she “never wanted to weigh more heavily on a man than a bird.”
Chanel’s connection with von Dincklage (along with her possible activities as a Nazi agent and her alleged homophobia and antisemitism) darkened but did not destroy her reputation. She created what became one of the world’s most profitable businesses, even now humming along under the guidance of Karl Lagerfeld, and she’s still recognized and revered for her determination, her visionary design sense, and her many gifts to the world of fashion and style. Some of the most notable of those gifts:
Uncorseted clothing—soft, simple, practical, garments in which women could move comfortably with no loss of elegance or femininity
The Chanel suit; introduced in the 1920s and borrowing unabashedly from menswear Chanel’s suit really took off in America, and then the world, after WW II, when women were beginning the struggle to enter a man’s world without completely discarding their notions of femininity (Jackie Kennedy wore one on that ugly day in Dallas in November 1963)
The striped t-shirt (borrowed, so to speak, from Breton sailors; now ubiquitous and considered quintessentially French)
The Little Black Dress, introduced in the 1920s, some say because she found the reds, greens, and electric blues then in fashion nauseating. “These colors are impossible,” she supposedly declared. “These women, I’m bloody well going to dress them in black!”
Chanel No. 5 perfume, launched in 1921, famously worn by Marilyn Monroe as (not under) her sleeping costume, and now the best-selling perfume in the world—and the first to bear a designer’s name
Pearls, unabashedly faux yet still tasteful, as everyday wear
Categories: Fashion Quote of the Week