How to make what matters
Picasso’s observations were astute. Chanel made one of the most impactful impressions on women’s fashion in the twentieth century, and at the same time built one of the most recognisable fashion brands in the world.
And the thing that defines Chanel’s contribution relates to this little story about what Picasso said: there’s a pragmatism in her designs and in her way of seeing things that, as creators, we can learn from.
She says in an interview later in her life that her creative process is about capturing a central concept or message.
Some couturiers are really good couturiers but they change every week, and this is the reason why I’ve created my own style. I couldn’t do it if I had to come up with something new every week, you end up creating very ugly thing.”
In the realm of creativity, which can seem boundless and – somewhat paradoxically – also suffocating, this is approach is a relief. It eases the burden of constantly producing something ‘new’, which often comes at the expense of creating something worthwhile.
Perhaps some of Chanel’s pragmatism comes from her early days as an orphan raised by nuns. She applied a practical lens to women’s fashion to create what Time called in 1957, the “genre pauvre”, or the “poor look”.
In her work, she used what she knew – she understood the demands of farm life, she saw nuns doing really hard physical work – in surprising ways to produce fresh outcomes that affected women’s mobility and their ability to engage in powerful activities like sport.
“ Chanel herself had bobbed hair, tanned skin and a boyish figure – and she refused to marry, though she had several lovers. ”
She opened her first shop at the age of 30, selling hats and a limited line of garments, the most successful of which were those she made from jersey. Until then, jersey was a fabric used mainly for men’s underwear, but it captivated Chanel because it was inexpensive and comfortable.
At the onset of World War I, Chanel’s jersey garments allowed women to reject the corset and they were freed to take on the physical demands of wartime. Chanel liberated women by giving them permission to work through what she made for them to wear: ditch-digger’s scarves, mechanic’s shirts, trousers and dresses with simple cuts.
Take a snapshot of street fashion in New York, Paris or London, and you’ll see Chanel’s influence pervades. Fashion for the contemporary woman has as much emphasis on functionality as it does on form.
Fashion is never simply a superficial facade. What we choose to wear sometimes represents our individual values, and sometimes it represents broader cultural and social restraints and freedoms.
But there’s also more to it.
Simply by allowing for more freedom of movement, Chanel’s designs created a space in which women could be emancipated both symbolically and physically from constraints. Chanel established the standard for the ‘modern’ woman; clothing and approach to daily life we probably take for granted today.
Chanel herself had bobbed hair, tanned skin and a boyish figure – and she refused to marry, though she had several lovers. By all accounts she worked with amazing stamina. Her independence and her strength as a maker are a reflection of her fashion concepts.
Chanel made designs for films and plays, including Cocteau’s plays Oedipus Rex (1937) and Antigone (1923). Her fashion sits alongside the works of other great creators of the modern era including Picasso, Stravinsky, Cocteau and Diaghilev, each of whom explored the interaction between the interiority and the external world through their art.
It is fair to say that Chanel’s designs reflected and created a cultural and historical turning point in which women were liberated by what they wore, and by extension, what they were permitted by society to do.