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The History of the Suit: Coco Chanel and the First Women’s Suit

April 17, 2013

After World War I, the men who had gone to war to fight on behalf of the Allies were returning home, and replacing the women who had taken their place in the workforce. Women were all of a sudden expected to return to their homes and their prior roles as housewives—as well as their frilly, tight-fitted dresses. With a taste of independence, for both clothing and careers, many women refused to go back to the old ways and instead made a name for themselves as professionals. One such woman was Gabrielle or “Coco” Chanel, founder of the well-known luxury brand Chanel.

Chanel stands in front of her Deauville Boutique

Chanel at her Deauville Boutique in 1913

Raised in a convent in her early years, Coco Chanel had little exposure to upper class fashion growing up. She quickly learned to be self-sufficient, and when she left the convent, she found work as a seamstress and as a performer at cabarets around France. Through performing she met a number of wealthy and aristocratic men, and ended up in affairs with a number of them. She became the mistress of Etienne Balsan at age 23, and lived with him in his chateau in the countryside for three years. It was there that she began making hats to pass the time. She later became involved with Balsan’s friend and English aristocrat Arthur Capel, who moved her to Paris. There she started her own hat shop and due to her creations being featured in a number of plays, became very successful as a milliner.

Coco Chanel eventually expanded her business to include clothing for women, and opened a small boutique in Deauville, France. The postwar woman had become more accustomed to less structure in their clothing along with comfort and greater freedom of movement, and Chanel was able to deliver. Using materials generally utilized in men’s underwear, Chanel created soft and comfortable sportswear and leisurewear for women out of knit fabrics such as jerseys and tricots.

Chanel's suits never went out of fashion, and wore them throughout her entire life

Coco Chanel in 1962, sporting one of her own suits

After Chanel’s great success in Deauville, she opened another shop in Biarritz 1915 and later in one of the most fashionable neighborhoods in Paris in 1921. It was in Paris that she designed the classic “Chanel suit.” The suit was created as a natural step in Chanel’s designs: it employed traditionally masculine features of clothing giving it a very bold look, was designed primarily for comfort and mobility for an active lifestyle, and was fabricated with soft and flexible materials. The Chanel suit consisted of a collarless, button-up, wool jacket, and a well-fitted skirt. The jacket often had braid trim, metallic buttons and fitted sleeves, which left a polished and sophisticated look. Chanel herself wore it with a cropped haircut, which became popular for women in the 1920s.

The Chanel suit, as well as Coco Chanel’s own look, expanded the field of dressing for women. While the style was often criticized at the time, it was the first professional option for clothing that women had. In fact, the Chanel suit was the first suit made specifically for women and its arrival only encouraged women to pursue their professional goals—it was a way for the women after World War I to hold onto their independent lifestyles, even when their husbands came home from war.