There are few designers more legendary than Coco Chanel, so it was with great delight that I accepted an invitation to a presentation of the â€œThe Secrets of the Chanel Jacket” at the Chanel boutique in Chicago. Surrounded by an air of perpetual elegance and a bit of mystery, her revolutionary creations have forever altered the way women dress and adorn themselves. From her refusal to wear corsets (a must for ladies at the time), her love of bold costume jewelry, and her regular adoption of popular menswear looks, Coco certainly defied convention in the most stylish manner possible. In fact, it was her desire to borrow from the boys, so to speak, that led to the origin of the very first Chanel jackets.
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Coco was the first fashionable woman to do many things, including carrying a shoulder bag (she liked to keep her hands free), wearing a little black dress to anything other than a funeral, and of course, introducing jackets that were clearly influenced by men’s clothing styles. In fact, the very first Chanel jackets were blazers with military details like gold buttons and epaulets, followed closely by English tweeds and yachtsman styles, thanks in part to Coco’s affair with the Duke of Westminster, who was considered one of the most stylish men of his time.
Although corsets were considered an absolute must for proper ladies during most of Coco’s life, she shunned such restrictive garments; instead, she focused on softer construction in the form of perfectly tailored suits. For example, while the average jacket is made of up of four panels of fabric, a Chanel jacket may contain up to eighteen, resulting in an incredibly precise fit that can be further molded to the wearer’s body. In addition, there is lots of handwork, such as intricate embroideries by the revered House of Lesage, complex tweeds, and chains carefully placed in the hemlines to ensure each jacket holds its shape. â€œEvery woman wants to be wrapped in chains”, Coco said famously, referring to the chains in her jackets and handbags.
Besides the craftsmanship, however, there are other hallmarks of Chanel style. The buttons, for instance, are all designed to tell the story of the brand. Past motifs have included four-leaf clovers, camellias, lions (Coco’s astrological sign was Leo), and various other designs, including, of course, her famous initials. Made by the House of Desrues (which is also responsible for the label’s costume jewelry), the buttons are an integral part of each jacket. â€œIn fact, the buttons are like pieces of jewelry for each garment”, said Mary Adair Maclaire, the main speaker. Other major elements of Chanel style include ribbons, which add a touch of femininity to any garment, the usage of contrasting colors to accentuate structure, and of course, classic tweeds.
While tweed is a fabric with a long history, Chanel has constantly modernized it, creating innovative variations on an old standby using ribbons, embroideries, and beads, resulting in lightweight materials that blend tradition and innovation – perfect for a label with such an outstanding pedigree. The presentation even included a suit cut from black and white tweed that had tiny silver chains worked into the weave, lending the entire ensemble to a feeling of movement and a subtle sparkle.
Although this event focused on the history of the Chanel jacket, it also included some newer styles from the Spring/Summer 2008 and Resort collections, along with other pieces designed by Coco’s successor, Karl Lagerfield (including a sailor-chic navy and white ensemble, several feminine tweed suits, and a dazzling black jacket trimmed with detachable ivory ribbons). While she was a true original, Karl has managed to step into her shoes and continue the tradition of quality, innovation, and elegance that is Chanel.
Images courtesy of Chanel