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Coco Chanel’s Influence on Women’s Rights Essay

Part A: Plan of Investigation

Coco Chanel was not the typical feminist that campaigned for suffrage or sexual freedom, yet she had a profound impact on the European feminist movement by redefining the woman’s role in society through revolutionizing women’s fashion. Chanel was the first couture fashion designer to cater to the independent European woman, rejecting the corset and, instead, promoting less binding, “boyish” attire for the modern, working woman. To determine the extent to which Coco Chanel influenced the European feminist movement in the early twentieth century, this investigation will examine the ways in which Chanel’s unique designs such as the “Little Black Dress” and women’s trousers liberated European women and redefined their role in society.

Part B: Summary of Evidence

Born in 1883, in Saumur, France, to working class parents. Mother died when she was 12. Father sent his three daughters to a convent in Central France Left at eighteen, to pursue a stage career. This is when she adopted the nickname “Coco.” Career began in 1910, when she opened her first millinery shop in Paris. Developed the “working costume” for women in France who took over the jobs of fighting men during WWI. Popularized the “little boy” look in women’s fashion. Her relaxed fashions, short skirts, and casual look contrasted the corset fashions of the previous decades. Chanel herself dressed in mannish clothes, and adapted these more comfortable fashions which other women also found liberating. Designs were made to allow women to use one item in many different facets unlike previous fashions.

Released Cardigan jacket in 1925

Released the “little black dress” in 1926

The “little black dress” allowed women to work and play, while accentuating the female form The “little black dress” became the new standard for women’s formalwear Took such fabrics as cotton and jersey, which were typically for men’s undergarments and made women’s everyday wear out of them She offered men’s pullover sweaters, sailor jackets, and straight skirts for women By the 1920s, her fashion house had expanded to included suits and dresses, women’s trousers, costume jewelry, perfume and textile.

Example of a typical Chanel outfit:

“Chanel look” consisted of a wool jersey suit with a straight, collarless jacket. Skirts were full-cut and short, and hair was often bobby pined and covered with a sailor hat Chanel’s fashions not only changed the way women looked on the outside, but they also changed the way women looked at themselves. The first and second world wars drastically changed aesthetics, social norms, and accepted values Post-war era allowed for the women’s liberation movement, promoting the idea of the new androgynous woman, or “nouvelle femme.” Embraced this new ideal, liberating the female form from constraints and frivolity, combining masculine and feminine in her designs to encourage women to be free in life and movement Credited with liberating women from the constraints of the “corseted silhouette” and popularizing the acceptance of a sportive, casual chic as the feminine standard in the post-World War I era Freed women from binding and restricted clothing, which set women as objects and not strong assets with knowledgeable contributions.

Part C: Evaluation of Sources

Extract A1

This text is a secondary source Time magazine article entitled “The Designer COCO CHANEL,” written by Ingrid Sischy and published on June 8, 1998. Its purpose is to provide information about Chanel’s personal and professional lives, as well as link her revolutionary designs with the work of contemporary designers to support her legacy in both fashion and feminism. This article was intended for an audience of educated young adults, probably with some interest in the fashion industry. This source is very valuable because it provides historical information about Coco Chanel’s life and the time period in which she lived, as well as evaluating the impact of her work on contemporary fashion. It not only examines Chanel’s impact on the fashion movement, but also explores how the change in fashion influenced every day lives of European women and redefined their roles in society.

Because it is a secondary source written over twenty years after Chanel’s death, hindsight allows the author to reflect upon almost one hundred years of time, citing examples from many different decades to support that Chanel’s work has had a lasting impact. However, this source is also limited because it is a product of contemporary American society, and therefore offers a limited perspective on the early twentieth century European women’s rights movement. Additionally, this article is from a commercial publication, and though it is reliable and intended for an educated audience, it may include some dramatization and unnecessary information to make it more appealing for readers.

Extract B2

This biography, Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life, is a secondary source text written by Lisa Chaney. Published in New York in 2011, this work aims to examine Coco Chanel’s unconventional journey from poverty to glamour, along which she helped to redefine the idea of the modern European woman. This text is intended for an audience of educated individuals with an interest in Coco Chanel and her legacy. Throughout this biography, Chaney references private letters, personal records, and interviews with Chanel’s friends and family to explore the origins of Chanel’s revolutionary ideas that influenced the European feminist movement. This source is valuable because it provides an in-depth examination of Coco Chanel’s life through analysis of new primary source evidence. Additionally, because Chaney is reflecting on Chanel’s life and influence in hindsight, she is able to link Chanel’s work with the progression of European women’s rights throughout the twentieth century, establishing cause and effect relationships. However, this source is limited because Chaney does not take an objective perspective, and, instead, aims to prove her theory that Chanel was extremely influential figure.

Part D: Analysis

Gabrielle Chanel was born in 1883, in the small town of Saumur, France, to working class parents. When Gabrielle was twelve years old, her mother died of bronchitis and her father sent his three daughters to the convent of Aubazine in Central France, where Chanel first learned to sew and developed her spirit of determination to create a better life for herself as an independent woman. At eighteen, Chanel aged out of the convent and left the constraints of religious life to pursue a stage career as “Coco”, while working part-time as a seamstress. Even at the start of her career, Chanel embodied the idea of the independent European woman, serving as a mistress to a wealthy military officer and an English industrialist to finance her own millinery shop in Paris 1910. In her small shop, Chanel offered an alternative style of women’s fashion, including men’s pullover sweaters, sailor jackets, and straight skirts, because she believed that women should be able dress as simply and comfortably as men.

These designs were considered radical in contrast with the frivolous, binding corsets of the previous era. Her first great success began at the start of World War I, when her chic yet practical fashions became the “working costume” for French women that assumed the jobs of men fighting in the war. Chanel was the first designer to use jersey, which, at the time, had been reserved for men’s underwear. Simple, practical, and comfortable, this fabric was the complete antithesis of what women’s clothing had previously been: frivolous, uncomfortable and centered around a binding corset. Interestingly, this choice of material was made mostly due to necessity, as the war had resulted in a short supply of more expensive fabric, and jersey was very affordable if purchased in bulk; however, this practical business decision and a desire for comfort led to the start of a fashion revolution, in which practicality and comfort replaced frivolity and tradition.

The 1920s was a significant period of liberation for women, during with they received the right to vote in several western countries and began to enter professions previously reserved for men. Additionally, following the First World War, Europe experienced a drastic change in aesthetics, social norms, and accepted values, which created the perfect environment to foster Chanel’s radical designs. These designs not only symbolized some of these social and political changes, but also helped propel women’s sense of empowerment by redefining the way they viewed themselves. Unrestricted by corsets and frivolity, for the first time women were able to serve society for a purpose other than decoration. By the mid-1920s, the “Chanel look” consisting of wool jersey suits, full-cut and short skirts, and costume jewelry had swept throughout Europe and redefined the image of a modern European woman. Chanel introduced her signature cardigan jacket in 1925 and the “little black dress” in 1926, both of which redefined women’s formalwear. In 1926, Vogue published a sketch of her calf-length simple black sheath and labeled it a “frock that all the world would wear,” for Chanel had created a new wardrobe staple.

Most importantly, the little black dress celebrated female sexuality, by accentuating the hips and legs in a complementary color that had previously been reserved for funerals. Chanel’s “little black dress” allowed women to indiscriminately assert their beauty and sexuality for their own pleasure and self-pride. This celebration of sexuality and the female form also helped to bolster women’s confidence to assert their desires for equality. Though Coco Chanel did not begin her journey with the goal of becoming a feminist icon, her revolutionary designs inadvertently sparked a fashion movement that would help to redefine the modern European woman. She herself epitomized the modern woman, as her fierce independence and drive resulted from her oppressive childhood and subsequent desire to create a better life for herself. Accredited with liberating women from the constraints of the “corseted silhouette” and popularizing the acceptance of a sportive, casual chic as the feminine standard in the post-World War I era, Coco Chanel freed women from the binding and restrictive clothing of the previous era and helped to propel the early European feminist movement of the twentieth century.

Part E: Conclusion

From her humble beginnings as an orphan, Coco Chanel rose to become one of the most influential fashion designers of the twentieth century, liberating women from the constraining frivolity and corsets of the previous generations and redefining the image of a modern European woman. Chanel’s simple, “boyish” clothing gained popularity during the First World War when women were forced to assume the jobs of fighting men, and practical clothing became a necessity for the new “working woman.” Subsequently, Chanel accidently sparked a revolution in which her unique fashions not only changed the way women dressed, but also changed the way women viewed themselves. By revolutionizing women’s fashion and helping to create the image of the independent, working woman, Coco Chanel had an incredible impact on the early European women’s rights movement.

Total Word Count: 1757

Part F: Bibliography
Chaney, Lisa. Coco Chanel: an intimate life. New York: Viking, 2011. Print. “Coco Chanel Biography.” Coco Chanel. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2014. . DeChagas, Bridget. “Coco Chanel: The Unlikely Fashion Icon.” NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2014. . “How Coco Chanel Broke the Rules.” – The GROUND Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2014. . Nichols, Michelle. “Chanel advanced women’s rights, says actress Tautou.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 21 Sept. 2009. Web. 8 Mar. 2014. . Picardie, Justine. Coco Chanel: the legend and the life. New York: Itbooks :, 2010. Print. Roux, Edmonde. Chanel: her life, her world, and the woman behind the legend she herself created. New York: Knopf :, 1975. Print. “SEVEN WONDERS: HOW COCO CHANEL CHANGED THE COURSE OF WOMEN’S FASHION – Wonderland Magazine.” Wonderland Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2014. . Sischy, Ingrid. “The Designer COCO CHANEL.” Time. Time Inc., 8 June 1998. Web. 9 Mar. 2014. .

Appendix 1

“Certainly her life was unpredictable. Even her death–in 1971, at the age of 87 in her private quarters at the Ritz Hotel–was a plush ending that probably would not have been predicted for Chanel by the nuns in the Aubazine orphanage, where she spent time as a ward of the state after her mother died and her father ran off. No doubt the sisters at the convent in Moulins, who took her in when she was 17, raised their eyebrows when the young woman left the seamstress job they had helped her get to try for a career as a cabaret singer. This stint as a performer–she was apparently charming but no Piaf–led her to take up with the local swells and become the backup mistress of Etienne Balsan, a playboy who would finance her move to Paris and the opening of her first hat business. That arrangement gave way to a bigger and better deal when she moved on to his friend, Arthur (“Boy”) Capel, who is said to have been the love of her life and who backed her expansion from hats to clothes and from Paris to the coastal resorts of Deauville and Biarritz. One of her first successes was the loose-fitting sweater, which she belted and teamed with a skirt. These early victories were similar to the clothes she had been making for herself–women’s clothes made out of Everyman materials such as jersey, usually associated with men’s undergarments.

Throughout the ’20s, Chanel’s social, sexual and professional progress continued, and her eminence grew to the status of legend. By the early ’30s she’d been courted by Hollywood, gone and come back. She had almost married one of the richest men in Europe, the Duke of Westminster; when she didn’t, her explanation was, “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.” In fact, there were many Coco Chanels, just as her work had many phases and many styles, including Gypsy skirts, over-the-top fake jewelry and glittering evening wear–made of crystal and jet beads laid over black and white georgette crepe–not just the plainer jersey suits and “little black dresses” that made her famous. But probably the single element that most ensured Chanel’s being remembered, even when it would have been easier to write her off, is not a piece of clothing but a form of liquid gold–Chanel No. 5, in its Art Deco bottle, which was launched in 1923. It was the first perfume to bear a designer’s name.”


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