Coco Chanel was perhaps not a nice woman. There are rumours of an abandoned child, and accusations about Nazi collaboration. Murky episodes that may or may not have been vital to her survival. But then the world already had plenty of nice women. Coco was different. She was a woman who challenged the status quo.
All too often when we think of Coco Chanel we think of boucle suits, pearls, and Karl Lagerfeld at the helm of the multinational Uber brand that carries her name. All of these things are part of her legacy, but she was also instrumental in liberating women. The Belle Époque era, when Coco started out as a seamstress, saw women constrained, restrained and weighed down by crinolines and whalebone corsets. Just as they had been for most of history. Coco thought this was nonsense, opting instead to dress like a Tom Boy.
Through Coco’s designs, often based on her own style, she pioneered: the discarding of corsets, women wearing trousers, and women cutting their hair short. Those more used to the current freedoms of expression we enjoy may view these as a trifling list of trends in the ever-changing game of fashion, but they signified monumental social change. They revolutionised the way women dressed. They revolutionised the way women were seen. They revolutionised the way women saw themselves.
Coco herself achieved something during her lifetime that was beyond most of her femal contempories’ grasp: she was a businesswoman. Financially independent. Unfettered. Her life spans a period in history when women were still viewed predominantly as ‘only’ wives and mothers. Mere decoration for a man’s arm. Coco helped free women from the shackles of society’s expectations. She gave women the (literal) freedom to run, jump and stride forwards. Those aren’t just a pair of slacks and a stripy jumper she’s wearing, they’re a political statement.
Happy Birthday, Coco.