The history of Chanel’s work began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the time, aristocratic women were expected to wear corsets so that they would have tiny waists, plump busts, and large hips. However, corsets didn’t really work for many body types; they also were uncomfortable to wear and made breathing an absolute nightmare. So, what was an active, fashionable woman of the time to do?
Enter Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Realizing that she couldn’t compete with the established fashionistas of the time, Chanel chose to carve out a new path for herself. She enjoyed an active lifestyle and aspired to be more than a mere “decoration of the living room.” In fact, she envisioned a very different future for herself and women everywhere.
Chanel believed that she could improve the lives of millions of women by reimagining women’s fashion. She began by using concepts taken from men’s suits, which were designed for maximum comfort and practicality. Chanel continued to build on these ideas until she opened her first boutique in 1913.
With seemingly perfect timing, Chanel developed and marketed a modern suit for women. She worked with a feminist philosophy that proved extremely popular. It was based on three basic principles: practicality, durability, and comfort.
Getting rid of excessive trimming and rigid, cumbersome corsets, Chanel focused her efforts on simple women’s wear. Her clothes gave women the ability to dress and undress without help. Moreover, they allowed women to sit and walk comfortably; they even gave women the freedom to run, jump, and play sports! Crazy, right?
By the early 1920s, Coco Chanel had become a fashion icon in both Europe and America. Her designs were simple, but this simplicity helped recreate the female image in much of the Western Hemisphere. Chanel always believed that clothing should be a blank canvas on which to build a unique look.
Not only did this enable greater comfort in women’s fashion, but it gave every woman the ability to have a more individualized style. Through style, women gained greater freedom over their bodies. While it may not be fair to attribute the rising women’s liberation movement to Coco Chanel alone, her designs certainly helped women feel a new sense of autonomy in a time when women everywhere were fighting for equal rights.
However, the 1950s brought new beauty standards that emphasized thin waists, fluffy skirts, and prominent busts. While many saw these changes as the natural evolution of fashion, Chanel saw them as a return to constraint and impracticality. It was the era of conformity and, for women, the obligation to be good housewives. In keeping with her rebellious philosophy, Chanel responded with a resounding, “uh, no thanks.”
To counter these backward changes in fashion and culture, Chanel created a light tweed suit as a symbol of the elegant, confident, modern woman. To add to this new look, she introduced her signature line of handbags, which hung from the shoulder, freeing women’s hands from the burden of the traditional clutch. Around the same time, she began experimenting with new beauty products, including makeup, jewelry, and perfume, giving women even more ways to customize their look.
Chanel's legacy lies not in the creation of products, but in the formation of grand ideas that now underlie many modern concepts of beauty and femininity. She proved that women didn’t need to be motionless dolls, stuck in uncomfortable and impractical clothing. Instead, women could have practicality, elegance, luxury, and personal freedom — all at the same time! Thanks to Coco Chanel’s progressive philosophy and perseverance, Chanel remains one of the world’s most popular brands and a symbol of female empowerment everywhere!