Glass unpicks the seams of the Chanel jacket (with cigarette in hand)
The term ‘iconic’ has been farmed out and milked to exhaustion, crop-dusted at below-par celebrity and branded upon people and things that will be forgotten the moment another so-called ‘icon’ arises. I shall not use this label for the remainder of this article but rather the much maligned "classic", considered old fashioned yet bearing connotations of superiority.
Good – some things are superior, and exist from an age long gone, having stood the test of time. I doubt very much Katie Price will be remembered 30 years from now. Will Twilight retain the same respect as Jules et Jim? Lady Gaga's present musical renown will diminish, with Mozart's own seated quite comfortably.
As we know, fashions come and go. Trends of the street encapsulate a time. Governments are exchanged, finances inflate and deflate, the contemporary youth grow up and music scenes evolve and merge. The looks of these times correspondingly morph into new aesthetics.
However, some things don't change. They are set in stone and have remained time immortal. The Chanel jacket is the true epitome of a classic.
Born in 1924 as the cardigan jacket, its prototype shape has changed little, except perhaps for a little tailoring at the back, a preference for tweed over knit, an evolving colour palette – though the signature black and white reign supreme – and experiments with decoration at the whim of Karl Lagerfeld. The overall spectacle of the Chanel jacket is consistent.
It is unmistakable. The very viewing of the garment conveys a prestige and glamour that even the most hardened socialist punk can't help but fall helplessly for. It is the ultimate rags-to-riches fairytale, becoming, from its humble beginnings, the standard attire for socialites and aristocracy. One could almost call it the earliest punk of the century, but however much Coco herself was a renegade, stripping the female form of the constrictions of post-Edwardian corseting, she wanted the woman to be free, agile and herself. Letting the woman shine with her personality as much as possible, the couture was to highlight the wit, intelligence and splendour of the woman. This isn't just renegade punk; it is feminism.
The simple unpadded and unboned shape of the jacket, with its eradication of darting and interfacing – a true opponent to the stiffened and heavily formal New Look of Dior – of course sent ripples through the fashion world of the time. Its ingenious design was born out of post-war austerity, the simple shape utilising masculine, enduring tweeds, inspiring housewives across Europe to cut up their husbands’ old suits and mish-mash them together on the Axminster to save ration coupons for the next meal. Its simplicity was elevated with simple touches of silk crepe and jersey lining so that when taken off with a cigarette in the mouth – ever a cigarette when being worn – the garment maintains its refined colour palette rather than bedazzling with contrasts, internalising the exterior beauty. The edging of either crochet or binding gave a welcome pep to what could have been a Blue Peter project and the loss of construction materials was to the gain of the female form on display. A woman's stature was now on parade rather than the architecture of corseting. Not since Marie Antoinette disrobed herself and the court of silks and corsets in favour of free-flowing English muslins has womenswear been so revolutionary and emancipated from the constraints put upon the female form.
Coco, like Marie Antoinette, believed in the woman. United by a love of attire, they wanted the woman's true person to shine brilliantly forth, their natural shape to be displayed. The elevation of the woman beyond the realm of patriarchal ownership was of utmost importance. It was a woman's look for the woman, by a woman.
Over time the original jacket has been played with and spiced to give variety. Tweeds of various weaves and fluidities, edgings of beads and brocade, and buttons and pockets (maximum of 4) have all been added and removed dependant on the collection, but yet again the truest mark of the jacket is never lost – it remains the prestigious liberated garment born out of menswear. Androgyny is the couture weapon of politics and society, challenging our opinions of the time, a weapon of elegant commentary that brought us the little black dress and the straw chapeau. The use of jersey for womenswear is now taken for granted, while at its inception it sent shockwaves through society. The jacket in hardy tweed with its simple construction was challenging, masculine yet elegant.
The addition of exquisite embroidery is welcome, sending the once-minimal creation into the heady heights of resplendent craft; however, ones eyes can't help wandering back to the original jacket, its tweed, its edging, its two pockets. A vision of elegant utility. Of course the eponymous pearls are a must and despite women no longer wearing them draped to their backs – more’s the pity – having them draped to the front is still a joy. It’s not twee, but classic; not being chained to the sink and making the husbands meal, but the nonchalance of the busy woman who relies on the classics of her toilette.
This is the strength of the Chanel jacket, its nonchalance rendering the wearer effortless. The woman who knows that being elegant means minimal time in front of a mirror and maximum time living, wears it with simply tailored attire, slung-on pearls and hand-combed hair.
Fashion has the habit of enslaving one to their wardrobe, at the expense of one’s true innate style. Well, let me end on the truest and most classic moment of fashion. I quote Mademoiselle Coco: "Fashion becomes unfashionable. Style never." When one stays true to the style of oneself, one remains a constant, a classic of time, unfettered, free and able.