Coco Chanel’s life is fascinating; she transformed women’s fashion and mobility with her jersey fabrics and ease of movement with women’s wear. Coco Chanel transformed herself from a poor country girl into a career woman during a time and place when women were expected to either marry or enter a convent when they became adults. Chanel’s life path was anything from ordinary, and while she definitely had a difficult childhood, she changed women’s fashion to empower active women. Chanel’s influence in women’s fashion helped the corset go out of fashion and allowed women to move about more freely.
She was athletic: she loved to ride horses, she swam in the ocean at a time when women were looked down on for going into the ocean rather than simply watching men sunbathe, and she was a dancer.. Because of her interests in movement, Chanel borrowed clothing from the men she dated and adapted men’s clothing for women; she wore large men’s pocket coats and had them pulled in; she sewed ribbon and bows onto men’s sweaters, and she even had riding suits tailored for herself made in men’s fashion and refused to wear dresses or ride side saddle. She made wearing a suntan fashionable during a time when women were expected to have pale, white skin because she was not afraid to be athletic, to be seen as different, and to not look the way that all women were expected to look: lots of frou frou, uncomfortable clothing, and long hair.
Chanel wore her hair short, dressed in comfortable clothing, and as we know, was a trend setter whose trends became classics. Chanel wore men’s equestrian pants, naval inspired blazers and striped shirts, and comfortable shoes. Coco Chanel is also the first to bring the classic breton striped shirt to classic women’s wear that it is today. Originally known as the mariener or matelot, the striped shirt was worn by the sailors of northern France. Coco Chanel’s adaptation of the Breton striped shirt to women’s fashion is explained: “Inspired by sailors, after a visit to the French coast, Coco Chanel introduced the design to the fashion world through her nautical collection in 1917. The Breton top became a symbol of haute-bourgeois loveliness during the pre-war Riviera years. The introduction of this garment from the traditional working class to female fashion, was a breakaway from the heavily corseted belle epoque fashion of the time. The introduction of more casual wear to women’s fashion was required at the time due to the increase in popularity of seaside destinations, like Saint Tropez. Coco Chanel designed the piece to be paired the shirt with long flared trousers. As the style adapted during the 1930s, the upper class would pair the top with a cravat, blazer and shorts.”
Over the decades, the striped shirt was adapted into the different fashions of the times. Marilyn Monroe wore the striped shirt, Audrey Hepburn sported stripes for Funny Face (1956) and “It” girl Edie Sedgewick wore stripes in Andy Warhol’s film Kitchen (1965). Nowadays the striped shirt is synonymous with chic Parisian wear and is versatile for so many looks.
The popularity of the breton striped shirt endures as does the legacy of Coco Chanel.