Chanel- Lessons on Comfort and Wearability

I’m a big fan of Chanel.  I’m not so much for her collarless suits, the pearls or the ritzy double “C” logo, but I’m captivated by the person.  She was a woman from nowhere with nothing who looked at the world around her and found it utterly ridiculous, so she changed the way women dress.

This manner of dressing had no place in the modern woman’s wardrobe….

How?  During the last gasps of the Edwardian era she reacted against the fluffy, fussy and restrictive ideals expressed in feminine clothing.

Audrey Tatou as Coco Chanel… she went to a men’s tailor for these clothes, they thought she was quite mad…

Instead, she strove for comfort and wearability, borrowing fabrics and cuts from menswear.  Her lover, Boy Capel, played polo and she famously “stole” his wool jersey polo shirts and later used jersey in her designs.

Click for an excellent article on Breton Stripes

The striped shirt came from the picturesque (and practical) striped jerseys worn by French fishermen.

Click for source

The “garcons” shirt (white with a black bow tie, tres chic) was inspired by the uniforms worn by French schoolboys.

Early (ish) Chanel. Click for an interesting article on progress in fashion…

She stripped off the corset and streamlined the shapes of dresses.

…and introduced the Little Black Dress.  I find myself constantly inspired both by the audacity of Chanel’s early work and by her “maxims.”  She was well known for repeating phrases and proverbs of her own composition to herself.  The first time I picked up a Chanel biography, one of her oft-repeated maxims switched on a light inside my head:

Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.

Somehow in the intervening years, my mind has fashioned that maxim into:

The clothes I sew must be comfortable, otherwise what’s the point?

Chanel built her reputation and her empire on teaching women to wear clothes that don’t get in the way of being female.  Her influence on fashion (and feminism, in her way) can not be over-stated.

So if she considers comfort an indispensable element of luxury, I have to agree with her.  I used to think of “luxury” clothing as expensive, fancy pieces of frippery meant to be worn carefully.  Perhaps with poky bits, or scratchy places.  The lesson I draw from Chanel’s early work is that your clothes should never get in the way of what you do while wearing those clothes.

Perhaps that’s why I include “mobility” as an important element of good fit and strive for wearability in my sewing.

As I fossicked around the internet for a few more images to show the inspiration for this month’s hack (more on that tomorrow), I ran across the Chanel website.  Did you know they post videos of their catwalk shows?  I’m usually not interested in what the big houses do because the designs often get in the way of living life.  Sometimes the shows are quite inspiring or interesting, but not usually terribly practical.

But what’s this from the Summer 2012 Haute Couture show?  Pockets?  Are those pockets?  And a nifty rolled standaway collar, and cut-on sleeves, and yoke seaming interest?  Do I catch a faint whiff of practicality blended with killer style?  Chanel, is that you?

The collection was inspired by 50’s-60’s Pan-Am uniforms, but the designs are perfectly wearable (and sew-able!).  I like most of the garments shown, and I keep watching the shows and imaging what fabrics I’d use to conjure up the frocks.

The sleeves- maybe not.  But of course I love the wide flowing trousers.  They feature the same pocket treatment as the other dresses in the collection.

There’s far, far too many lovely and completely wearable garments in this collection for me to show them all, do check out the show on the Chanel website.

Which easy-wear Chanel look do you like best?  Man-tailored?  Garscons?  Breton Stripes?  Corset-free evening wear?  Or the 2012 Eminently Practical Collection (as I am now calling it..)?


  1. Ooh, great post! I’m a big fan of what I like to call “tomboy chic”– I love schoolboy blazers and trousers, but I also love Breton stripes, so I love all of these photos! I appreciate that Coco Chanel made clothes for active women, not dress forms!

  2. I have quite the soft spot for Chanel as well. I love how she revolutionised fashion so women could wear trousers. Without her influence I would be in trouble quite frequently- life without jeans is unthinkable!

    Style wise, I personally love the man-tailored vibe though I am yet to try to wear it myself.

    And finally, the idea of luxury being comfortable is something I am growing to understand especially in regards to sewing. I am finding some of the pieces I have sewn earlier on I’m not wearing as while they look rad they don’t feel quite right. I should have listen to Chanel earlier :D

    • Well– women wore trousers before and after Chanel, but she did help make them more acceptable, definitely. :) I’m not entirely sure what she’d think about jeans, though… Maybe she’d like them in theory because of their plebeian roots and versatility, but I have to wonder if she’d like the look of them all over the place on the streets….

      I might make a post on how to dip your toe into masculine/feminine dressing… I’m hardly an expert, but it’s fun and stylish…


  3. I love Chanel. There is very rarely a season where there is not at least one garment that I would love to be able to make for myself, never mind own outright. I really liked the Practical Collection, too! The collars really caught my eye….

    • I know! Those collars are fantastic, and in my opinion kind of wasted on those tiny girl models… This is a collection for a regular sized person… :)

  4. I can’t stand Coco Chanel— oh sure, I like some of her style ideas, and I respect her independence. But she was an ardent antisemite, a Nazi supporter, and she opposed fair work and wages legislation and was considered an abusive employer.

    That said, those looks from the runway show are stunning.

    • Well… All of those things are somewhat unsavory, but it doesn’t diminish the value of her work and design.

      I believe the rumors of Nazi collaboration came from two things- the fact she had an affair with a German aristocrat during the war, and the fact that she wanted the war to end and didn’t care particularly which side won. She just wanted peace time because war is bad for business. I see her as something of a hard-edged pragmatist, and that’s how someone with her character reacted to the world around her. The French government examined her for espionage and collaboration and let her go.

      The anti-semite one has been kicked around, but it’s not terribly easy to prove. If she was, she’s a product of her time and place. Being not-anti-semitic in those times and that place was kind of odd, casual anti-semitism was fairly normal. That’s not to condone it, but their world was a very very different place than ours and it does not do to forget that.

      As for fair work and wages, I think she just didn’t see the point. After all, she had started out underpaid and over-worked and had built her empire from nothing (with help from backers…. but still, she is the one who found those backers)… I believe her common response to pleas for increased wages was something like “Let them go get lovers.” Which is harsh, to be sure, and not the way I’d run my own business but I can see that someone like her would respond that way.

      I’m definitely not saying she’s a moral authority, but I wouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, either… :)

  5. I am reading a book about a woman detective in new york during the early part of the twentieth century (I read really dorky novels…). The heroine talks about how her tight skirts impede her and how she refuses to wear a corset even though other women wonder how she’ll get a husband with such a large waist. She even goes to a tailor to get a business woman costume made and wants to wear bloomers. The author writes a lot of historical facts and people in to these novels. I wonder if the main character was loosely based on Coco Chanel. Ok, sorry I’m rambling on.

    • Possibly, Chanel was an informant and involved in quite a lot of intrigue in service to the 3rd Reich.

      On a completely different note, I can’t wait for the next T hack!! And those skirts remind me of the Rachel Comey Vogue pattern with the horizontal front pockets and the loose shirt.

      • Pardon, those claims have been kicking around for 70 years without a whole lot of evidence or proof… It’s highly contested, not a foregone fact. I figure if the French government could forgive her, then it’s probably none of my business.

        I do hope you like the next T… I think I’m going out on a boat next month, so I’m making it with high wind and chilly wet weather in mind… And practicality, always practicality.

    • Liza Jane– WHAT is the name of that book? Sounds like it would be a delightful read. The author may well have drawn on Chanel for inspiration, but she was hardly alone in thinking the styles of her age were stupid. She just ended up doing more about it than the others… :)

      • They are the Molly Murphy mysteries by Rhys Bowen. There are several and they are wonderful. The first one is called Murphy’s Law. Fiction but with lots of real life history written in.

  6. OK, I really like that last darker-blue dress, though there’s something a bit off in the fit/cut of the collar, at least on that model. Love the seam-lines and the pockets, though, totally.

    • I thought a lot of that collection was fantastically proportioned for a larger woman…. The lithe models look like so many little girls flitting about in their mothers’ dresses. A little.

      I’m really digging these dresses, too… :)

  7. “Little Black Dress” is at least a generation older than Coco Chanel, although it is from Jersey: the Channel Isle of Jersey. Lillie Langtry, the Jersey Lily. While she was mistress of Edward VII, attended many parties at his invitation. She was so poor that she could not afford an evening gown — and certainly not a new one for every event! — so she made her “good” black dress her iconic fashion statement. Society ladies rushed to imitate her, and thus was born the concept of a well-cut black dress that was acceptable in any social situation, and which could be dressed up or down as needed.

    • Thank you, Lin, for introducing me to a very interesting person. I had read that black as eveningwear was around before Chanel, but she was more or less the person who made it incredibly “Chic” rather than “edgy.” If you know what I mean.. Very cool, I’m going to go read up on Langtry now! :)

      • She was an amazing person. She took her assets — physical beauty, high intelligence, musical talent — and parlayed them into a career that took her across oceans and continents, to dizzying heights of social influence and wealth that were impossible for most women of her time to achieve. She was one of the pioneers of unconventionality as a woman’s path to fame and power. (Not sure that I approve of her morals, but I have no idea how I would have acted, in her place. I have no patience with the heroine of Quo Vadis, for example.)

  8. Fantastic post Steph. Nice to see couture looks accessible (with modifications) to seekers. Thank you for breaking it down.

  9. HUGE fan of Breton stripes here… and I love some CC – that early-ish dress? I would totally love to wear something like that. Wide leg trousers… a fav. Never had a little black dress though. Great post, enjoyed it thoroughly!

    • Never had a little black dress? They’re so damn useful. I think I have 4 or 5… ;)

      Breton Stripes.. I have some jersey that’s almost like a negative of Breton Stripes… the white and navy is reversed, I rather like it…

  10. Eminently Practical all the way. I agree though – even if you don’t like Chanel, you can’t help but admire what the brand has achieved. I really like their aesthetic – clean, simple, and elegant.

  11. good post Steph, and I’ll be coming back (when its not past my bedtime on a worknight!) to click through and read some of the linked articles. Funny timing too, cos only last night i was debating downloading CoCo before Chanel to re-watch…
    I like clothing to work with what you’re doing as well & like Ginger, like a bit of the ol’ tomboy chic, blazers, cropped or otherwise, and little jackets are my preferred cover up to cardigans, if only i had time to sew up all the variations i dream up ;-)

    • Oh do… The articles are so much more interesting than what I wrote…

      Sigh, I hear you about not having time for all the dreams… ;)

  12. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have all the time in the world to do that beading. I love the dresses and the ideas in the suits. God the jackets alone are gorgeous, but I’m a sucker for a lovely tailored interesting jacket – wish I had the dosh/skills to get/make me one or two. Interesting ideas for the collars, the widest of which would work best on wider frames than the gamin wee things strutting in the video.

    I actually really love the idea of fine chiffon (?) giving a hint of the sleeve shape or filling in the bodice ‘cut outs’ – a very pretty effect scattered through the last half of the show. I wonder if this would be wearable on a hack on a more everyday basis. What do you think? Would it hold up to shoulder bags on and off, kiddos pickups etc?

  13. I love Coco Chanel. Yes she was flawed, but she was truly fashion forward. I love the cardigan jackets and intended to make one for myself someday (I live an hour and a half from Linton Tweeds…I have no excuse!). I also love Breton stripes and wide trousers. She is right though…the ultimate luxury is well fitted clothes that are comfortable and stylish. It’s a great goal to aim for.

  14. Pingback: Trouser Legs: How Wide is Too Wide? « 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World

  15. Pingback: Would You Like to Vionnet? « 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World

Is it kind, useful or interesting? Great!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s