How the Chanel jacket became the most recognizable garment of the 20th century and remains so today.

When Gabrielle Chanel decided to return to Paris in 1954 and reopen her fashion house after almost 10 years of not visiting it and almost 15 years after leaving fashion altogether, her main driving force was irritation. She was in fact irritable, contentious, arrogant and intolerant; all of these features combined to make her difficult character; and were drivers of her brilliant career. This time Chanel was irritated by the success of Christian Dior’s new look. He incarnated everything she hated in fashion and fought against throughout her immense fame in the inter-war period: rigid constructions, thin waists, multilayer hoop skirts weighing a number of kilogrammes, push-ups, tight concrete jackets in which you couldn’t raise your hand, and corsets for God’s sake.

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel working in the salon on the rue Cambon

Fashion of 1950's is excessive opulence, pompous decorative, stiffness, structural complexity and, most importantly, archaization of the socio-cultural position of women. In these dresses from somewhat 50 meters of silk with a rigid corset pushapom and overhead rollers on the hips, no wander, one cannot jump and run (that means to conduct the most active way of life, which is so natural for Chanel herself) and even just walking and sitting was not easy.

So, the flowery women that Chanel detested, that became the conceptual pivot for Chanel’s return. She used this image as a starting point and proposed something decisively different: minimalism, simplicity, functional fits, poverty deluxe, freedom of movement, reserved decorations and no more than 3 meters of fabric instead of 50. 

After the art deco era, when the main couturiers of Paris were women: Chanel herself, Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli; post-war Paris was once again dominated by men: Cristabal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, Robert Piguet, Jacques Heim. This was another source of irritation for Chanel, who always believed that men know nothing about women’s clothing needs. They are striving to turn women into beautiful objects of décor; while she offers them freedom and comfort, making them the acting subject. She called Dior’s design ‘illogical’ and said that he knows nothing about how the female body works. 

In 1954, almost 20 years later, Chanel remembered everything she knew about traditional Scottish tweed and traditional English jackets. They became her inspiration for the shape of her own jacket. Here again she contradicted Dior. The Dior Bar jacket called upon the beauties of the Belle Époque: tight-laced waist, form-hugging breast, fixed shoulders, rigid corset inserts and starched fronts. The Chanel jacket evoked the British men’s Edwardian classic: straight, free, soft, non-fitted to ensure maximum comfort in movement.