If you had to choose one word to summon the glamour and mystique of high fashion, that word would be Chanel, written in glossy black capitals on a white background.
Chanel is a name as familiar to us as Coca-Cola or Rolls-Royce. We recognise the double ‘C’ logo, the staying power of Chanel No 5, the chain strap on a Chanel bag.
But, still, we probably underestimate the French designer Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s extraordinary legacy and the influence she continues to have on the way we dress, even now in the Autumn of 2023.
This is what the V&A’s showstopping new exhibition, opening next week, is planning to rectify, just over a century after Madame Chanel’s name became synonymous with the height of French chic.
Roll up, roll up to see the clothes and accessories, from Lauren Bacall’s tweed skirt suit, all the way back to the first iteration of the little black dress in 1920.
Chanel isn’t just a pretty word. When I think back to covering catwalk shows in the Nineties and Noughties, I think first of Chanel.
Other shows were hotly anticipated; Chanel was The Show, the hardest to get in to and yet unmissable.
For entry you required not just a ticket hand engraved with your name and seat number, but your passport. The triple checks, the fevered security — it felt like being ushered into the vault of a secret society.
No one ever questioned the drama surrounding these events; everyone accepted that Chanel was the ultimate in Parisian fashion and its catwalk show the pinnacle of Paris Fashion Week. As it still is.
Once – days before the couture show – I was ushered into the presence of a leather gloved and pony-tailed Karl Lagerfeld. There was no Choupette at the time (his fluffy pet cat, whom he acquired in 2011), just his muse Amanda Harlech whispering in his ear from under a giant black hat.
It was very like being presented at court. No one spoke. I watched them regard the models who passed before them and murmur to each other, debating the depth of a cuff with the sober intensity of scientists at the microscope.
The business of continuing Madame Chanel’s legacy is a deadly serious one.
But what’s remarkable, for the vast majority of us who don’t have the means to buy the clothes, is that Chanel’s signature styles – with their simplicity and practicality combined with elegance that was so ahead of its time – continue to appeal to women of all ages.
The boxy cardigan jacket. The original idea of a Little Black Dress being the answer to everything. A stripey Breton sailor’s top. Tweed, as something a sophisticated woman might wear. It all runs in a silky cream and black ribbon line from Coco Chanel to the present day.
The label doesn’t just rest on the classics: its ‘dad’ sandals – a much-copied Velcro strap slingback – are right at the top of every young fashionista’s wish list.
But you will find a version of almost everything Chanel herself designed and made famous – some of them before the war – in the wardrobes of fashion lovers the world over. Signatures that she refined are still going strong and looking as modern now as they did when she wore them. Here are Chanel’s greatest hits – and where you can find them …
1. The jacket
What do you wear when you get to the top? A Chanel jacket. From the late Fifties onwards, the cardigan-like jacket plus a simple skirt that sat on the upper hip was the go-to uniform for Vogue editors, presidents’ wives, and crack divorce barristers. Now it’s less about the suit and more about the jacket, which you can wear with frayed jeans or with shorts if that’s your mood.
Legendary for its fine chains stitched into the hem to make it lie perfectly against the body, stripped of padding and stiffening, and made in supple fabrics for ease and comfort, it freed up women at a time when clothes were restrictive and you had to look perfectly contained down to your little white gloves.
Apparently Lauren Bacall, then a young actress, loved her Chanel suit because it was easy to move in and at the same time elegant. Fast forward to the present day and boxy, tweedy jackets cut like cardigans are everywhere this autumn — from Zara to Marks & Spencer. Their smarter casual mood still works and arguably they haven’t been so popular since the 1980s.
2. The 2.55 bag
Along with the Chanel jacket, the other internationally recognised status symbol is the 2.55 bag. You know this one at 200 yards: it’s the quilted flap bag with a chain strap, sometimes threaded with leather, named after the month and year it was created by Chanel (fun fact: she was 71 at the time). It’s surely the most copied bag on the planet. The chain-strap style has also had something of a renaissance in the last couple of years, maybe because in minimal times a bit of bag bling appeals more.
The real thing costs over £8,500, secondhand you can pick one up for a bit more than £3,000. Alternatively, you can go the homage route and find a bag not unlike the 2.55 anywhere from Mango to H&M.
3. The Little Black Dress
As early as 1910 Chanel was making black – a colour previously associated with service and mourning – stylish and daring. Then, in 1926, Vogue declared a Chanel black day dress, stripped of ornament ‘a sort of uniform for all women of taste’ and the Little Black Dress was born. A century later the idea that you can’t beat the modernity or the sophistication of a plain LBD is still going strong, for day, for night, for summer or winter. There’s one in every High Street store.
4. Trousers on women
Coco Chanel saw the ease with which men went about their business and watched the British upper classes relaxing in their flannels and tweeds. Every time you pull on a loose-fit trouser and tuck in a silk blouse you should be thanking her for relaxing the rules to the point where American fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland was hosting parties in the 1930s wearing a trouser suit made of tulle embroidered with black sequins. As daring as it was chic then, light black sequins (that very outfit) would be perfect for a party in Autumn 2023.
5. The Breton top
Chanel was incorporating nautical menswear elements into her designs as early as 1913 and used to wear her own Breton sailor top tucked in to high waisted trousers, the way we do today. The Breton top has been worn over the years by starlets, Sloane Rangers, Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn, Bridget Jones, you name it. If you still don’t own one, you can pick up a classic Breton everywhere from Boden to Bella Freud. M&S had, at the last count, eight separate Breton-style striped T-shirts ranging from £9 to £35. Reverse the stripes for winter so the darker colour is the background one.
6. Two-tone shoes
Beige with a black toe is the Chanel signature and the low-heeled slingback and the ballet pump are the styles that are never out of fashion. The only difference now is you’re more likely to wear them with jeans or a clashing print dress than a pink boucle skirt suit. Look for secondhand pairs on re-sale site Vestiaire Collective (vestiairecollective.com) or try Jones Bootmaker or Office for classic ballet pumps.
Not something most of us have worn since the 1980s, but the extra large gobstopper-y faux sort are on sale in Zara now. Chanel’s minimal designs were the perfect backdrop for lashings of neck candy – costume and real – and piling on giant pearls was something she did first. We’re not saying this is for everyone, but if you feel your LBD or your Breton top or your cream blouse with a black bow are in need of a bit of a lift, don’t hold back. It’s very Chanel.
8. Black and white
she didn’t invent the colours, but the combination – bold, clean, unadorned – is pure Chanel. Right now you can find expensive cream silk shirts with black ribbon neck ties hanging on rails in stores (such as Me+Em and H&M) waiting to be worn with high waisted black trousers and a bouclé cropped jacket (three ticks for Chanel).
Buy a velvet ribbon and wear it at the throat of your old cream silk shirt and you’re all set.
- Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto runs from September 16, 2023, to February 25, 2024. For tickets, see vam.ac.uk