A Series of Magical Transformations

How the Chanel jacket became the most recognizable garment of the 20th century and remains so today.


When Gabrielle Chanel decided to return to Paris in 1954 and reopen her fashion house after almost 10 years of not visiting it and almost 15 years after leaving fashion altogether, her main driving force was irritation. She was in fact irritable, contentious, arrogant and intolerant; all of these features combined to make her difficult character; and were drivers of her brilliant career. This time Chanel was irritated by the success of Christian Dior’s new look. He incarnated everything she hated in fashion and fought against throughout her immense fame in the inter-war period: rigid constructions, thin waists, multilayer hoop skirts weighing a number of kilogrammes, push-ups, tight concrete jackets in which you couldn’t raise your hand, and corsets for God’s sake.

14e25abec0a9615270bd3ced10b02781.jpgChristian Dior Couture dress, 1953

Fashion of 1950's is excessive opulence, pompous decorative, stiffness, structural complexity and, most importantly, archaization of the socio-cultural position of women. In these dresses from somewhat 50 meters of silk with a rigid corset pushapom and overhead rollers on the hips, no wander, one cannot jump and run (that means to conduct the most active way of life, which is so natural for Chanel herself) and even just walking and sitting was not easy.

Coco Chanel working in the salon on the rue Cambon

So, the flowery women that Chanel detested, that became the conceptual pivot for Chanel’s return. She used this image as a starting point and proposed something decisively different: minimalism, simplicity, functional fits, poverty deluxe, freedom of movement, reserved decorations and no more than 3 meters of fabric instead of 50. 

After the art deco era, when the main couturiers of Paris were women: Chanel herself, Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli; post-war Paris was once again dominated by men: Cristabal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, Robert Piguet, Jacques Heim. This was another source of irritation for Chanel, who always believed that men know nothing about women’s clothing needs. They are striving to turn women into beautiful objects of décor; while she offers them freedom and comfort, making them the acting subject. She called Dior’s design ‘illogical’ and said that he knows nothing about how the female body works. 

Model wearing Christian Dior the Bar jacket, 1955

That was the ideology behind Chanel’s comeback. To implement it practically, she needed a garment that would become the symbol of the new Chanel era and a bestseller at the same time. The Chanel jacket from her very first collection was destined to take on this role, and it still is a hit today. 

9a1a0458a1315ddd7257b1a79bd65483.jpgModels wearing Chanel jackets, 1960s

As always, Chanel was studying menswear in search of something new and inspirational however literally this time: she went through the clothes of her lover, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, called ‘Bendor’ by his friends. It was in his wardrobe that Chanel had discovered the whole variety of traditional British jackets in the 1920’s: jackets for all sorts of countryside entertainment (hunting, fishing, picnics, village fairs, all those things so vividly portrayed for us now by Downton Abbey), with patch pockets, and, naturally, made from tweed. It was tweed, and more particularly the classical Scottish Harris Tweed that was made (and is still made manually using 19th century technology) in the Outer Hebrides that became her last favourite material. Chanel met Grosvenor in 1923; the first tweed jacket appeared in her collection in 1925. In 1924 Chanel had already placed an order for tweed for her costumes with one of the numerous factories in Northern Scotland. 

Coco Chanel, 1932

In 1954, almost 20 years later, Chanel remembered everything she knew about traditional Scottish tweed and traditional English jackets. They became her inspiration for the shape of her own jacket. Here again she contradicted Dior. The Dior Bar jacket called upon the beauties of the Belle Époque: tight-laced waist, form-hugging breast, fixed shoulders, rigid corset inserts and starched fronts. The Chanel jacket evoked the British men’s Edwardian classic: straight, free, soft, non-fitted to ensure maximum comfort in movement. 

fc7c72ffa57842bd5f527553a45a2006.jpgCoco Chanel wearing tweed suit in the salon on the rue Cambon

In 1954, upon her return to Paris and Parisian haute couture, Gabrielle Chanel was standing in front of the cameras giving an interview against the Coromandel screens of her apartment on Rue Cambon, where she hadn’t lived for a long time, with a cigarette in-hand, wearing a suit she had just demonstrated as part of her new collection and would show in all the subsequent ones. The suit was a straight skirt and a straight tweed jacket with no collar or lapels, with a round neckline, contrasting seam lace, four pockets, silk lining and a chain sewn into the hemline for a perfect fit. Somewhat similar to the crimson couture jacket with dark blue trimming dating back to the 1960’s, a rare and valuable example of a garment made within Chanel’s lifetime, worthy of the Musee des Arts Dekoratifs collection. It even had a brooch with Gripoix crystals.

Lifetime Chanel couture jacket from the Vintage Voyage collection

All buttons of the classical Chanel jacket carried the trademark logo. They had real and not false button holes; no additional lining or reinforcing elements between silk and tweed. It was a canon, other parts might be changed. The trimming might be both sharper or in matching colours, the cut might be v-shaped, then small flaps or a soft colour appeared (or both). The tweed jacket remained the same until Chanel’s death in 1971 and sometime afterwards, although instead of 4 pockets there might be 2, as on a rare and a very invigorating beige-orange jacket with a beige tape at the end of the 1970’s.

Lifetime Chanel suit from the Vintage Voyage collection

In 1983 the Wertheimer family that owned the Chanel brand hired a new art director to update Chanel’s legacy, tasked with a general upgrade to make the brand modern and to attract a new generation of clients. The new art director was Karl Lagerfeld. Usually, in such cases people write of “a new chapter started in the history of the fashion house”, and in this case the cliché was fulfilled quite vividly, because Karl Lagerfeld’s 30 years plus at Chanel have become a model of how to treat a historic fashion house and its exclusive legacy, and will enter (or has already entered) business textbooks.

Chanel advertising , 1991

Lagerfeld set out Chanel’s legacy in terms of its characteristic pieces; and he began to develop each of them. This included Chanel’s jacket which began changing in line with current trends but nevertheless remained instantly recognizable. It could be slightly slim–fit and long, for example, like this delicately pink-lemon-blue chequered jacket  with an exquisite round collar. It could be very slim-fitting and have a broadened shoulder line as per 1980’s-1990s fashion styles, like the black jacket with a black trimming  and golden buttons, or it might be pin-tucked in the front and self-belted on the back, like the emerald green jacket (a rare and a very interesting design solution) with black trimming. It might be made not from tweed but preserving its recognizable outlook, such as the graphical jacket from the white and black couturier suit made from pied-de-poule chequered wool with black trimming, another rare, almost priceless item made during Chanel’s lifetime. It might be made not from tweed and have no trimming and be cut in the waistline – like the impressive cornflower blue from thin woolens with a collar, lapels and jewelry buttons with multi-colored crystals. Or, it may be the opposite: trimmed with a classical Chanel tape along all edges, including the collar, lapels, and the cut itself – like the monochromic inky jacket made from woollen crepe. However, it will still be instantly recognizable as a Chanel jacket, such was the power of the archetype Chanel created.

Inès de LaFressange wearing Chanel jacket, 1984

Lagerfeld started experimenting with the tweed texture and trimming. Actually, it was Chanel herself who started this in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s when she evaluated the whole potential of tweed and realized how to “glamorize” this entirely unglamorous fabric. The loose texture of tweed allowed great flexibility – she braided in metal threads, silk bands, silk and cotton and even cellophane, achieving the most unexpected results.

jackets1.jpgChanel jackets from the Vintage Voyage collection

These experiments were continued by Lagerfeld. For example, he does not only shorten the classical jacket, as the fashion of the 1990’s called for. He retained only two of the four pockets and constructed the sleeve 7/3, he braided in yellow mohair thread to match the colour of the golden buttons in the feature jacket of that time, a bright pink short collar-less jacket. Alternatively, he changed the tape for a broad satin band, like in another short jacket from milky tweed, also with two pockets. Or he uses braided leather for trimming, like in the dark green short and tight slim-fit jacket; adding some rock-‘n-roll elements to it. Both of the latter pieces; the milky and the dark-green ones; feature raglan sleeves that were common in the 1990’s. Generally, today Lesage workshops make tweed for the Chanel couture collections with unimaginable elements and the most complex of textures.

Chanel jackets from the Vintage Voyage collection

However, aside from all the design and decorative experiments Karl Lagerfeld performed, he was responsible for another important thing. Lagerfeld carried out a revolution in style that radically changed the approach to the Chanel classical suit. He demonstrated that the jacket can be worn not only as it was in the time of Chanel herself, i.e. with a straight skirt, lady like; and not only with trousers, but also with the most stylistically contrasting of things, such as jeans, running shoes and even bathing suits. And this converts the jacket from being a bourgeois piece into a very modern one, enabling a combination of different fashionable looks. It is important to select a few different jackets from the wide variety of vintage options that will still look recognizable. This will ensure that the magic of the Chanel jacket remains but not in an over-obvious manner, as if it was simply taken from a shop window. And you need to keep your own personal style. As Chanel used to say herself: “It is important to enable a woman to move freely, without the feeling that she is wearing a suit, so that she would not change her behavior and manners based on what she is wearing”.

Vintage Chanel navy blue jacket blends with a sporty style

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Author: Elena Stafyeva


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A Series of Magical Transformations


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