Coco Chanel’s Feminist Progress Through Fashion

Summary: How Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel changed the face of fashion by challenging gender restrictions in women’s clothing.

Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. Holt Paperbacks. 1991.

Famous for rebelling through fashion, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel broke down barriers in the fashion industry for women. She used masculine wardrobe to express herself. Taking the comfort of men’s clothing, she produced styles for women. Not all of her best inventions were instant classics. There were times when society didn’t understand or appreciate them. Today, Chanel is a recognized name.

Where Comfort Meets Beauty

When Chanel was known as Gabrielle, men lead fashion. Who knew that the key to her success was as simple as giving women the ability to function in their own apparel? By altering the construction of women’s clothing to fit their bodies and not merely to attract the gaze of men, she achieved instant clientele.

Coco took men’s clothing and transformed it for women; she took women’s clothing and made it flexible like men’s. Before Chanel, pants were not acceptable for women, but one cannot move well in a dress. The corset was another familiar and uncomfortable item in a woman’s closet. Coco challenged it by designing relaxing yet elegant dresses. Women wore large hats, causing issues such as not being able to see; therefore, she made them smaller, like those for men. She created for parties and the office.

Fabric, Fabric, Fabric!

Jersey fabric was Coco’s first significant choice. This wasn’t immediately embraced. At the time, Jersey was only used for items such as hosiery. Such a common fabric was not respected enough for runway models to strut; unfortunately, options were limited during the war. With women working, the use of Jersey gave their bodies the freedom to do physical labor. Meanwhile, Chanel used her creativity to make outfits that they would want. After that, it was not only approved, but adored.

The Chanel Suit

Coco altered women’s suits for flexibility, as well. In typical Chanel fashion, the tight-fit design was destroyed: No shoulder-pads, no emphasis for the bust, and the neckline allows the woman to breathe. Unlike most suits, the pockets were not only to look pretty, but to be used. That’s something most women’s pants still lack, today. She went the extra mile to ensure that her customers would be at ease, wearing it daily. Therefore, suits were to be altered and realtered as much as it took for each individual to be able to move freely.

“The Little Black Dress”

In 1961, Audrey Hepburn popularized the little black dress when she starred in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but Chanel invented it.

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s opening scene

In 1919, Coco’s longtime believed soulmate, “Boy” Capel, died in a car accident. They almost lived happily ever after, multiple times. He betrayed her by getting married when they should have been together. After he was available once again, he died on his way to be with her.

After slipping into a deep grief, Coco dressed only in black. She even had her housekeepers turn her room black. As soon as she saw the finished room, she had her bed moved to another location to get away from it until everything was changed back the way it was:

“..She spent only a few minutes, however, in this mausoleum. ‘Quick, Joseph, get me out of this tomb and tell Marie to make me up a bed somewhere else,’ she told the butler,”(Madsen, p.105, para.4).

Ultimately, Chanel’s depression inspired one of her best-known creations. It was designed to be appropriate for any occasion or class. She wanted to make something for the lower-class to wear that would blend in with the wealthy. Since the dress could be worn to weddings or funerals, its versatility made it popular, much later on. 

Chanel Mottos to Live By

Many Chanel fans are not only drawn to Gabrielle because of her products, but her words of wisdom. Her quotes can be found throughout the internet. While most popular with women, some can be applied to anyone. Readers seeking life inspiration can turn to some of these quotes to keep going.

“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.”

Who couldn’t appreciate this quote? Essentially, Coco is suggesting that we be ourselves. Each one of us is unique. Whether in business or in our personal lives, we must be unapologetically ourselves.

“Great loves too must be endured.”

In a society that expects love to drop from the sky, people need to be realistic. Coco experienced great hardship when it came to love, especially with “Boy” Capel. What brings us happiness tends to come with predicament. Everything good often comes with struggle and loss.

“Fashion changes, but style endures.”

Coco found her niche. Through adjusting clothes to women’s bodies, she could design anything women needed. Regardless of our industry, once we find what we have that the world needs and how to apply it, we can use it universally as she did.

The Chanel Legacy

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel passed away at the Hotel Ritz on Sunday, January 10, 1971. She leaves behind a message that women should never have to decide between looking beautiful and feeling free. Her other famous achievements were jewelry, purses, the Camellia flower, and various perfumes. Since her passing, Chanel products come out year after year.

Films have been made about Chanel’s personal life and accomplishments. In 2008, Lifetime’s Coco Chanel was released, which stars Shirley MacLaine. In 2009, Audrey Tautou portrayed Chanel in the French film Coco Before Chanel. Later that same year, Anna Mouglalis played Coco in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky.

Whether merchandise or fictional representations, the Chanel name is here to stay.


Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. Holt Paperbacks. 1991.

Note to students: Over the years, I have received emails through HubPages asking for my post to be included in college essays. I am truly honored, since college was an important time in my life. I do ask that if you’re a student who would like to quote my post, please cite it under my pen name “Social Thoughts,” and use this website.

Thank you!

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