Coco Chanel wasn’t interested in the classic silhouette of the early 20th century. She believed that tight corsets, long skirts and stiff, heavy fabrics were a thing of the past. Instead, her designs were fresh and modern, helping women to feel less restricted. She revolutionised women’s casual wear with the use of jersey fabrics, and took inspiration from sports and sailing to create clothing women could move freely in. She also pioneered the little black dress, the Chanel suit and, of course, the Chanel bag.
The first of the Chanel bags was released in 1929, but it was re-imagined in 1955. For the second incarnation, the Chanel 2.55 bag, Coco Chanel introduced a practical longer strap so that the bag could be carried on the shoulder, leaving the hands free. These bags were the first time it was socially acceptable for women of social status to carry bags on their shoulders, and it earned a place in handbag history.
Chanel’s 2.55 bag led the way for other designers to start using shoulder straps on their bags, and can be seen in later Chanel collections such as the Chanel Boy bag and the Chanel 31 bag. If you want to know more about Chanel’s revolutionary handbag, read our post on the rest of the
The original Chanel flap bag was designed in the now-instantly recognisable quilted leather. It was also first released with the simple Mademoiselle Lock, with later designs by Karl Lagerfeld - the Chanel Classic Flap bag - featuring the interlocking CC logo. The burgundy interior is even said to be a nod to Chanel’s childhood in the convent orphanage, where she wore uniforms of a similar shade.
The first Chanel quilted shoulder bag was designed with an innovative double flap design, and contained an unusual zip pocket. This was said to be because Coco Chanel wanted to have a secret place to store her love letters from her many suitors. Some later incarnations of the Chanel 2.55 handbag have a single flap, but most stay true to the double flap design of the original.
Chanel was a feminist who was fiercely passionate about giving women the chance to express themselves through their clothing. This was the opposite of many of the designers who had come before her, who were more occupied with modesty and the idea that women should always look feminine. She hated corsets that made a woman’s waist look impossibly small and skirts that brushed the floor and hid women’s bodies completely. She wanted women to feel as though they could do whatever men could do, which can be seen in the androgynous touches of her bags and clothing.
The quilted leather of the 2.55 Chanel handbag was said to be inspired by the jackets worn by stablehands at the time, and the chain and leather strap gives it a rougher edge. At the time, the fact that women could wear the bags on their shoulders would have also made them seem much more masculine.
Coco Chanel was strong, brave and independent, so it’s no surprise that other women have turned to Chanel’s designs to give them confidence and elegance. The legacy that Coco Chanel has left is best described in her own words:
“A girl should be two things: who and what she wants.”
This is exactly what Chanel wanted women to feel when they wore her designs, that they were dressing for themselves and no one else; one of the reasons why her clothing and accessories have remained so popular over the years.
From screen starlets of Hollywood’s Golden Age to glamorous First Ladies to princesses, Chanel handbags and clothing have always been in the spotlight.
Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda were all snapped while showing off their Chanel designs, and Marlene Dietrich famously modelled an androgynous trouser suit designed by Coco Chanel in the 1930s. Marilyn Monroe even spoke about Chanel in an interview, scandalously claiming that all she wore to bed was “a few drops of Chanel No. 5”, catapulting Chanel perfume to new levels of fame.
Sleek Chanel skirts paired with a classic Chanel quilted bag were often seen on Princess Diana as she conducted her many visits to charities and hospitals, and actress and activist Emma Watson has been seen accessorising her off-duty outfits with a Chanel shoulder bag.
Jackie Kennedy’s pink Chanel suit has even become a symbol of strength in the face of tragedy, after she insisted on keeping it on for photographs after the assassination of her husband, JFK.
Coco Chanel’s desire was to empower women through her designs, giving them the confidence to be whoever they wanted to be. Her legacy lives on today through her iconic brand she built herself, as well as her timeless clothing, jewellery and handbags.