dressmakingCredit: Bath Costume Shop postcard

“A Girl Should be Two Things: Classy and Fabulous”

I love that quote from Coco Chanel; a woman who truly knew how to be classy! She was a poor, skinny orphaned child with a very fertile imagination for creative and talented sewing. In her time and ever enduring after her death, she remains an incredible role model for people who dare to embrace whatever they consider as unique to themselves.

Her humble origins didn’t deter her belief that she deserved better and more. Her father was a street merchant in France, and he used to bring Coco along while he worked. He sold items to wealthy women, and she observed, and began to romanticize her life. She was one of six children, and her mother died when she was 12 years old. Her father sent her to an orphanage run by strict disciplinarian nuns. There she learned to sew.

At age 18 she went to Notre Dame Finishing School for Ladies (in Moulins). The divide between the rich and poor at the school was intended, and common for the times. She was seated at the non paying lunch table and given second rate food to eat, along with the other girls from poor families.

“I Invented my Life by Taking for Granted that Everything I did not Like Would Have an Opposite, Which I Would Like.”

This division only furthered her resolve to study the rich girls at the school, and to match their behaviors. In short, she imitated herself into being just as fabulous as the rich, by cherishing her uniqueness. An example is the choice of work she made after school. She chose to work at a tailor shop instead of as a nurse, or domestic service person (the only 3 choices for women at the time). She knew she didn’t have a curvy round figure that was deemed essential for women (then), so she used that knowledge to embrace herself by designing hats and simple clothes that looked great on her; she didn’t bother trying to create fashions like others, or be like others. It worked!

First, she designed clothes without corsets, which was a huge statement for the era. Her practical and slender garments were clothes for every woman, not just the wealthy. She used to watch the clients in her shop (without them seeing her watch them) to see their reactions to her clothes, and prices. This gave her the kick to continue creating fashions that she wanted to wear. That is my thought, also she must have had a chuckle seeing the reactions to her work as she was probably considered an audacious upstart, who got the upper class to mix with commoners.

“I Was the One Who Changed, it Wasn’t Fashion. I was the One Who Was In Fashion.”

One day she borrowed a sweater from her male companion because she was cold. She also had a neat hair-do that she didn’t want messed up, so she cut the jersey down the middle, added ribbon to the edges, and finished it with a collar and a bow. The birth of the cardigan or new look of a modern sporty female was created.

She used wool jersey in her fashions, and during WWII cloth rationing when the textile industry was collapsing, she was able to purchase large quantities of it very cheaply. Jersey was not used in womens fashion, mainly mens clothing. So this was very daring and creative of her unpredictable simplicity.

Coco was very successful at the time because her fashions were worn in the street- everyone was embracing the new look of the agile, slender, athletic type of woman - like Coco herself. What she had that couldn’t be purchased was an attitude of distinctive beauty.

Gabrielle Chanel

Her mysterious name of Coco is attractive just like her being herself was so attractive. I know of three different versions of her nickname. One is that her father gave it to her, another is that she took it from a song title ("Ko ko ri Ko" and "Quiqu `a vu Coco?") from her short stint as a cabaret singer, or lastly, that she made it herself. She was considered a coquette or kept woman, and coco is a shortened version of the word. It does remain a mystery, and an attractive one for sure.

Gabrielle is a gorgeous name (my opinion), but Coco is unique. Some of her unique hallmarks in the fashion world are:

  • 1921 - Chanel No. 5 perfume debuted. It had 80 plus ingredients, and was the costliest perfume around.
  • 1926 - Coco created the little black dress, which is still considered a must have in any woman’s wardrobe.
  • 1954 - Bell bottom pants were her latest creation. I have photos of myself from the 60’s in bell bottom pants, they were the rage for a long time. Now they have been tamed to “boot cut” legs.

She also designed stage, film and movie costumes during her illustrious reign.

Coco died in 1971, and her; Coco Chanel little black dress, parfum Coco Chanel, Coco Chanel quotes, Coco Chanel fashion, and Coco Chanel designs remain classy and fabulous.