When we think of women’s rights we don’t often call up images of haute couture fashion houses.
And yet, at the turn of the 20th century there was one Parisian fashion designer whose clothes didn’t just encourage elegance, but individuality and liberation for women too.
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel revolutionised the way women wore clothes and in doing so challenged women to live by their own rules.
Designing Clothes to Suit Herself
Chanel did not define herself as a feminist. But neither did she allow the gender disparities of the day to hold her back. "I decided who I wanted to be, and that is who I am," she famously quipped.
It was this strength of mind and purpose that led the designer to create clothing that broke away from traditional ideas of womanhood – sports attire, trousers and dresses that were feminine but comfortable.
Chanel developed clothes that suited her own simple and chic style.
Her designs came in sleek lines, devoid of the restrictive girdles and other garments she had grown up with and that had been made to train the female torso into sexually desirable shapes.
That’s not to say that her clothing wasn’t sexually empowering. By dressing the natural shape of a woman she gave power to women to rediscover their bodies through unrestrained movement.
More Movement ...More Options
Chanel’s clothing did not just reflect new ideas regarding feminine appearance. It represented a whole new way of looking at female action.
Women could walk unhampered by the breath-squeezing corsets and layered dresses they had previously been forced into to represent the Victorian female ideal.
They could run, swim, and ride, the latter a favourite pastime of Chanel herself.
The Original Jersey Girl!
The French designer appropriated styles and fabrics from men’s fashion, decisions that a few decades earlier could have landed her in a prison cell.
She favoured jersey. An inexpensive fabric, it created loose but well-fitting lines around a woman’s body and had, up until then, only been used to make men’s underwear.
During the fabric-rationing days of WW1, jersey suited both her purse and her purpose of expanding fashionable attire beyond the wardrobes of women who could “afford it.”
"I make fashion women can live in, breath in, feel comfortable in and look younger in," Chanel said, an argument that both supported and defined the following decade of the 1920s when fashion became a statement of personality and not a husband’s bank balance.
Women's Right to Wear Trousers ... and Chanel's Extraordinary Influence
She was not the only one who, after the first world war, was feminizing masculine fashion. But her influence was extraordinary.
For instance, wearing “male attire” like trousers, was prohibited in many places in the late 19th century. But during the war, many working women had worn them for practical purposes.
By the early ‘20s, a gradual shift towards accepting pants as a staple of a woman’s wardrobe was occurring.
According to fashion and textile historians Valerie Mendes and Amy de la Haye, in their book 20th Century Fashion, “Chanel did much to accelerate this move and was often photographed during the day wearing loose, sailor-style trousers known as ‘yachting pants’.”
Pictured wearing these wide-legged pants on the beach (an act of ‘modesty’ Chanel later claimed), other fashionable young women began to follow in the steps of the pioneering Parisian.
Paired with a matching Chanel sports jacket or cardigan, it was an easy and stylish ensemble to throw over a swimsuit or wear for other leisure pursuits.
LBD, Suits, and Power
Similarly, the idea that Chanel alone created the “little black dress” is more myth than truth.
In 1922, four years before Vogue called Chanel’s LBD “the fashion Ford,” another Parisian fashion label, Premet, was selling millions of its Garconnes, short and plain black frocks with white silk cuffs and collars.
However, wrapped up in Chanel’s timeless creation was a sense of her own strong, independent spirit. That desire to be a part of liberated womanhood and yet distinctly oneself.
In her creation of the Chanel suit and tweed jackets for women, the French designer again took typical male clothing and developed them for female bodies and lives. It was a radical act.
Chanel was seizing all that such clothing represented – power, privilege, authority – and re-defining them as unapologetically female.
This was, after all, how she saw herself. But more than that – it was how she had decided to see the world, her world. “Never settle for less,” was another of Coco Chanel’s famed assertions. “If you do, that is all you'll ever get.”