Coco Chanel is considered a pioneer in the world of women’s fashion. Her career spanned the first, and most of the second, wave of the women’s liberation movement. Other women of that time, such as Virginia Wolfe, made their political statements through their writings. Chanel unveiled her brand in 1909, when one of the greatest freedoms available to women resided in how they expressed themselves through appearance and dress. Coco Chanel wielded the power of design as a political statement, and through fashion began a revolution which would change the way women were perceived for all time to come.
The prevalent fashion ideals for women were all about skirts, ruffles, frills and lace. Chanel’s turned this standard over its head, and made use of the male figure as inspiration when crafting her clothing. Pants, slim fitting suits, straight cuts, mute colors and more helped women to feel professionally competent and independent during a time in which women were asserting themselves as equal to men and demanding equal rights, and insisting on ethical treatment. Chanel main concern was of gender disparity – unequal treatment both at home and in the work place.
Chanel was a businesswoman, and did not outsource the finances of her company to a man; she appeared as the ambassador of her brand, instead of sending a man to negotiate for her; Chanel herself campaigned against cultural and political inequalities, and grew her brand in the process. Frills, flounces, and curls were no longer fashionable. Instead, short haircuts, flat-chested silhouettes and simple design were in style. The financial and professional ethos of Chanel’s designs catered to the ethical views of the times that it takes two genders for a family, for a nation, and for the success of the modern movement towards industry.
She considered her designs as intellectual property, and issued patents to protect her work from imitation and fake reproduction. Through her work, Chanel challenged a number of stereotypes. Firstly, her designs were simple and elegant, pants replacing skirts to allow for practicality and improved mobility. Chanel’s designer aesthetic reinforced her role in the women’s liberation movement by allowing women freedom of movement in their clothes, which was a metaphor for freedom of movement in their lives. Women for the first time had attire that was entirely their own, which they could use for work.
Chanel also believed that women had the right to own her own sexuality. The highly unethical standard of the time was for women to give themselves to their husbands whenever the husbands demanded sexual favors, and Chanel’s clothes denied men this idea, as well as implying that a women could undress herself however and whenever she chose, in her own personal style, just as she could dress herself however she chose. Her designs uplifted the traditional values of modesty and simplicity – a woman for the first time could dress for herself, not for the sake of pleasing her husband.
Chanel also challenged the status quo by asserting the idea that a woman did not have to flaunt her curves in order to be feminine and sexually a desirable, or tuck her body into a corset to appear socially presentable. The corset became a symbol of domination and restriction; it showed that women needed to keep themselves tucked away, camouflaged, hidden in plain sight. She attacked the belief that women were subservient, by changing fashion to what women want, not what men thought women should wear.
By wearing designs that were traditionally masculine, the line between gender differences began becoming blurry, with more and more women questioning the acceptability of male domination. Two of Chanel’s creations became fashion staples for decades. The first was the Chanel suit, which became the standard attire for working women around the world following the First World War. The second was her signature scent, Chanel No. 5. The clear cut, angular design of the bottle was a stark contrast the petite, jewel like romantic bottles that were focused at women, again symbols of women being sexual play things and nothing more.
Chanel No. 5 was an instrument women used to internalize the core vision of Chanel’s design – self confidence, professionalism and independence. The ethical nature of Chanel’s designs and vision for the women’s liberation movement is indisputable. Chanel did not intend to become a leader of the women’s liberation movement, but her art spoke for itself. She was the very embodiment of the powerful, liberated feminine ideal that she chose to uphold. She spurned marriage, and decided to live as a self-made woman who did not need a man to achieve success in life.
Later on in her life she became a champion of women’s right to own property, speaking at public gatherings and in public forums with national reaches of the necessity of a woman’s having a home to literally call her own. More than a brand name, Chanel came to objectify a way of life, and she laid the foundation for the coming women’s liberation movement. Through her clothes, Chanel celebrated the freedom and equality of women. She created a way of life, and her fashion was, in effect a workable, wearable, garment tailored specifically for the coming women’s movement.
Chanel herself was conscious of what she was doing, however it is important to note that she was doing what she inherently felt was correct. Her inner sense of aesthetics led her to create designs which inspired the women of her time to think differently about themselves and their place in society. Due to her influential status as a fashion icon, helped by the promotion of her line and brand by fashion magazines which celebrated Paris couture, Chanel was able to bring her message to the world and inspire other women who may not have been moved to change their self-concept and join the liberation movement.