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Know Your History: The CHANEL Jacket

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ScreenProd / Photononstop / Alamy Stock Photo

Ideally, the best designs are not only instantly recognizable, but also elicit an immediate feeling from their viewer. The undulating steel of a Frank Gehry building, the heart-quickening lines of a Ferrari, even the iPhone you’re likely reading this on, can each immediately be conjured up with your eyes closed. In fashion, designing something so recognizable that it lasts well beyond its creator’s lifetime is a feat all strive for and few ever achieve. Such is the case with a CHANEL jacket.

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Spring 2008 CHANEL Haute Couture show set
courtesy of CHANEL

Born from the desire to liberate women from the restrictive sartorial norms of the day (not the least among them, the regular use of a corset), French designer Gabrielle Chanel sought to dress women “in suits that make them feel at ease," she once said, "but that still emphasize femininity.” An idea which now seems simple, and yet 100 years ago was the start of a fashion revolution. This belief led Mademoiselle Chanel to create her first tweed suits, and in turn, the iconic CHANEL jacket.

In the mid-1920s Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel started working with tweed for her womenswear. She was said to have often borrowed the clothes of her lover, the Duke of Westminster, because she felt drawn to the ease and comfort they provided. With this in mind, Gabrielle turned her attentions to tweed—and the fabric, which at the time was used only in menswear, soon became her signature. While retrospectively modest when they were introduced in 1925, Gabrielle Chanel’s first tweed suits, set the groundwork for what we have now come to instantly recognize as a CHANEL jacket today.

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Actress Ina Claire in CHANEL, 1924
Getty Images

In the years that followed, Mademoiselle refined her tweeds, switching her factories from Scotland to France and worked on developing the mixture of tweed with silk and wool to create a lighter, more polished fabric.

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Gabrielle Chanel, wearing her own designs, 1931
BettmannGetty Images

Upon reopening her couture house in 1954, following WWII, it was Christian Dior’s wasp-waisted “new look” silhouette that ruled the day. Having freed women from the constraints of corseting some 30 years prior, Chanel’s designs were in direct contrast to the “new look” and were initially met with derision. It was actually American women who embraced Chanel’s reemergence and created the demand for her liberating, utterly modern suits and jackets.

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1950’s CHANEL house model, Marie-Hélène Arnaud.
courtesy of CHANEL

Her jackets were straight and structured, almost boxy and devoid of any darting, with a single seam down the center-back. The sleeve was slimly cut and set high on the shoulder to optimize comfort and movement. The lining mirrored this same construction, as Chanel herself would say, “the inside should match the outside.” As for embellishment, the four-pocket design often included braided-trim along the edges and cuffs, jewel-like buttons (often mirroring CHANEL iconography: a lion’s head, a camellia, a sheath of wheat, a double C…) and interior chain detailing along the hem included on every jacket to ensure the perfect drop, hang, and swing.

But how did these elements which make a CHANEL jacket so revolutionary also serve in making a CHANEL jacket so alluring? Enter Karl Lagerfeld...

In 1983, a dozen years after the passing of Mademoiselle Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld was named the head of the house, and solidified the CHANEL jacket's icon status. Lagerfeld took the elements introduced by Gabrielle Chanel, and for the next 35 years would constantly reinterpret her jacket, injecting it with elegance and humor while retaining the modern spirit with which it was created. He transformed it by playing with proportion and volume by cropping its length or expanding its shoulder. He brought it into the 21st century with new materials and fabric innovation, introducing leather and lurex, sequins and feathers, denim, rubber, and even cement to his versions of the classic jacket! Lagerfeld’s boundless imagination turned Mademoiselle Chanel’s creation into a worldwide object of desire.

Lagerfeld died in 2019, and the role of artistic director of CHANEL passed into the capable hands of his long-time right-hand, Virginie Viard, who has worked with CHANEL and Lagerfeld in various capacities since 1987 and specifically on CHANEL ready-to-wear since 2000. For the past few seasons since her appointment, Viard continues to expand on the stylistic vocabulary set forth by both Gabrielle Chanel and Lagerfeld. She has reworked her versions of the CHANEL jackets into new proportions of modern femininity, with an eye to what women today want, without sacrificing the founding principles of freedom, movement, and, most important, style.

In today's world of fast-fashion and ever-changing trends, a CHANEL jacket remains an unerring constant. A confirmed classic since its debut over 60 years ago, its allure continues to seduce women who want to appear of their time and yet, utterly timeless—what other single item of clothing can capture the spirit of the day in the same way? As Chanel herself famously said, “dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”

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