Thursday, September 24, 2009


by Polly Guerin, Fashion Historian

Cloaked in mystery and romance Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel is one of the most fascinating women in history and so is the Chanel suit that has outlasted her legendary life of rags to riches and high society. Her extraordinary influence on the way women dressed in the l920s and 1930s evokes an image of elegant simplicity and a modernist approach to fashion. No wonder, the Chanel suit reappears today as an all-time classic
Honors are pouring in across the country and today is the opening of the film, "Coco, Before Chanel" at the Paris Theater. But don't expect this movie to be all about the celebrated designer's famous Haute Couture days of wine and roses and high society. It focuses on her early days singing at cabarets, plying her dressmaking skills and finding romance with the wealthy male benefactors who provided financial aid and abetted her meteroric rise to stardom and high society.
All aboard, Saks Fifth Avenue's windows pay homage to Chanel and invite you to take a vicarious trip on the Chanel train with the CC logo, pulling out all the stops with Chanel suits and accessories. Attention to detail made the Haute Couture Chanel jacket quite a different breed of garment from the traditional tailored styles. The Haute Couture version was hand-made in exquisite tweeds and boucle fabrics and the lining, printed or plain, matched the coorinating blouse, collar and cuffs. A delicate gilt chain sewn to the hem of the jacked added just a bit of weight so the jacket did not ride up. Now that is a classy suit, par excellence and it is said that if Chanel was not satisified she would rip off the sleeve of the Chanel suit time and again to get the perfect fit. The end result was that despite fashion's frivolity this was a suit that would last for years and still look chic..
Her romances linked her name with celebrated men of the era. Idle hours on the Duke of Westminster's yacht did not stop Chanel's imagination and from the crew's uniforms she developed jersey yachting fashions and sportswear. Polly dishes the dirt as well about this amazing woman. After her romantic attachment to a German officer during WWII she fled to Switzerland and only returned to Paris to open her Couture House after the largesse of the French population forgave her dalliance.
Chanel is the trademark for fashion, accessories, perfume, cosmetics and all sorts of lovely things. If it isn't an authentic Chanel suit, do not use terms in your writing such as Chanel-ed, Chanel--issim or Chanel-ized. Lawyers positively detest them.

Bio: Polly was a fashion reporter when she was sent to cover the House of Chanel collection for the trade publication, bible of the fashion industry, Women's Wear Daily and had the great pleasure of meeting Madame herself. As a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology she became a recognized fashion historianon the subject of the Chanel suit. She is also a vice-president of Romance Writers of America/New York City chapter. Visit her at


  1. A most enjoyable post. How many old movies have I seen that had the most famous of fashion designers like Edith head and the sophisticated rebel Coco Chanel? Dozens, chic, beautiful, and chance taking fashions dominated the screen as they graced the bodies of the beautiful screen icons.
    She has endured from the little pill box hat the ever elegant and popular "Little black Suit." Every women I know has one.
    Thank you Polly for a great post as always

  2. You met the infamous Coco Chanel herself -- wow! What was she wearing?! I had to ask. I love looking thru magazines and seeing how designers are using classic pieces. I love that Chanel look of "elegant simplicity" you mentioned. Plus, of course, a splash of color to make it "me." Unfortunately, I don't know how to shop. I know, I know. It's a sin against womanhood that I don't know how to shop. I fear it, that is why I usually drag my sister Diana or Sylvia to go shopping with me. Maybe I should be dragging you, Polly, to the shops with me. Until I do, can you recommend some books or websites where I can learn more about Coco? Thanks.

  3. Frankly Polly, I think you are as classic as a Chanel suit!

    I am glad that you wrote this right before the movie came out, which I have been thinking about seeing. I love that her life was complicated and filled with romance in one way or another...

  4. I love Chanel. Can't afford it, but the style can be recreated. The 20's and 30's was a time of class, (as my grandmother would say).
    Wonderful article on such a complicated lady.