Spotlight: Unraveling the Tweed Jacket: Chanel

Posted by Elizabeth Williams on

In the annals of fashion history, few names resonate as much as Gabrielle Chanel, affectionately known as Coco Chanel.

As both a former fashion design educator and former fashion design student, I can attest that no design student is exempt from a classroom assignment on Chanel.

Born in 1883, in Saumur, France, Gabrielle Chanel's early years were marked by adversity. Orphaned at a young age, she spent her childhood in convent orphanages, where she learned the art of sewing, a skill that would later become her passport to greatness. 

Numerous movies have been made about Chanel's life, but if I had to recommend one that encapsulates her early years the best, it would be Coco before Chanel

Her ascent to fashion royalty began in the early 20th century. After working as a seamstress and a cabaret singer, Chanel met Etienne Balsan, who established her as his mistress. It was Balsan who, then introduced her to another lover, the polo-playing playboy, 'Boy' Capel' who channelled money into Coco's first shop selling hats in Rue Cambon, in Paris.

Chanel's designs were a radical departure from the ornate and restrictive garments of the Belle Époque era. She favored simplicity, functionality, and understated elegance, pioneering a new aesthetic that celebrated comfort and freedom of movement.

Although her career began as a milliner, it was her use of jersey, a fabric previously only used in mens underwear, that shapes and solidified her place in fashion history. The pairing of this particular fabric with a flat T shape became a signature Chanel sportswear look. This boyish "Garçonne" look ultimately became "the look of the 1920s. 

Throughout her illustrious career, Chanel continued to defy conventions and challenge the status quo. She popularized the concept of "casual chic," and  revolutionized women's fashion with the introduction of the little black dress.

Despite her unparalleled success, Chanel's life was not without its share of trials and tribulations. Throughout her career, she faced controversy, personal setbacks, and the tumult of two world wars. 

Chanel's reality is murky in its details and the subject of vastly different interpretations even now. She was known to exaggerate details about her personal life, so her first hand accounts about her own life are often discredited.

It is well known that she had a long affair with a Nazi agent, Hans Günther von Dincklage, known as Spatz. Some biographers and historians believe she may have been a Nazi informant, including the late Hal Vaughan in a lurid 2011 book called Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War. 

While much of this part of her life is currently being investigated by historians and journalist alike, it is clear that, very simply put, she was an enormous opportunist when it came to getting what she wanted.

Chanel's re-emergence onto the fashion scene after WW2 was a rocky one. She was not initially met with a warm embrace. The boyish look of the earlier decade had been replaced with Dior's "The New Look" which embraced femininity to its core. Chanel's look appeared "dated."

It wasn't until 1954 that the quintessential signatures of a classic CHANEL suit became in fashion. The now signature straight-cut jacket had a matching lining and blouse fabric, gilded lions' head motif buttons and a gilded metal chain sewn into the jacket hem to ensure the fabric falls perfectly. 

Inspired by menswear and imbued with her unique blend of sophistication, this garment remains synonymous with timeless elegance. 


The Chanel Tweed Jacket became further popularized by Lauren Bacall and Jackie Kennedy in the 1960's in the United States. The pink jacket that the first lady was wearing during her husband's assassination, was to be one of his "particular favorites."

Although many look to Coco's life for cues about the Chanel brand identity, no one did this with more care and reverence than the late designer, Karl Lagerfeld.

German-born designer Karl Lagerfeld became creative director of the House of Chanel in 1983. His design strategy was to reimagine the iconography of the house. From 1982-2000, Karl Lagerfeld reworked Chanel’s most iconic designs, including the tweed suit, numerous times, by combining innovative technologies and unorthodox materials with traditional methods of construction and embellishment. 

Today, we have Lagerfeld to thank for making the Chanel Tweed Jacket, the most recognizable in the world.

Lagerfeld twisted and transformed the Chanel suit, lengthening into a maxi-skirt, cropping it to a bolero jacket, and rendering it in fabrics from nubby tweeds to radiant Lurex-laced chiffons. And though the German designer loved to defy expectations, the inclusion of a Chanel suit in one of his collections was a near-certain guarantee.

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