Pearls and a little black dress: what woman could do without them? That simplicity could become such a defining and enduring fashion choice is the legacy of the one and only, Coco Chanel. Her influence on twentieth-century fashion—from iconic images of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy to the costume jewelry and trademark looks that have defined generations—reminds us how much our contemporary ideas of style owe to the vision of this most famous designer.
Following last month’s quiz for Jérôme Gautier’s Chanel: The Vocabulary of Style, two of the question answers—“jersey” and the “little black dress”—were minimalist signatures of Chanel’s early designs, but when her first black dress appeared in Vogue in 1926, the term had not yet been coined. Chanel’s aims in paring down style gave women the option of choosing clothes that were practical and easy, an important development in the wake of the Great War as the modern woman began to appear publicly in department stores, cabarets, advertisements, and of course, the downtown dinner party.
Chanel herself began wearing black around 1910, a color previously reserved for elite classes. She declared, “Before me, no one would have dared wear black,” and it was, indeed, quite a radical choice. She echoed avant-garde movements in abstraction and modernist architecture, creating a look similar to the “machine for living in” that Le Corbusier advocated in his “Maison Citrohan.” Women of all classes could enjoy a style that was chic, modern, and most of all, functional.
“There is nothing that ages a woman more than a rich look,” Chanel said. Gautier notes Chanel’s upbringing in Aubazine, the convent for orphans where she was sent after the death of her mother, as a critical influence on her simplified idea of beauty. Eighty-five years after the debut of her LBD, generations of women young and old have donned various styles of Chanel’s creation, proving that her legacy is truly here to stay. The photographs and images of this exquisite book put into words the otherwise ineffable splendor of Chanel’s designs.