Sometimes when the big one hits, the first few tremors are barely detectable. On this day in 1923, Mlle. Gabrielle Chanel gathered a small group of journalists in her salon at 31 Rue Cambon in Paris for an afternoon showing of her new line, which included what would become—wait for it—the Chanel suit. “Meh,” the reporters sniffed. The tweed separates barely got two lines of copy.
In those early days, Mlle. Chanel wasn’t considered the ballsy revolutionary that we think of in 2010. Back then, her oversized persona didn’t yet garner entire features in magazines; her clothes did not get their own feature spreads. In 1923, she had barely launched her first perfume (No. 5), the first costume jewelry had another year before it saw the light of day and the little black dress was merely a glimmer in her eye. Sure she had already popularized tanning and introduced separates, wool jersey clothing and sportswear—basically invented what is now modern dress—but journalists considered her house a conservative one. Chanel was brisk and businesslike to reporters. But they did perk up a bit over a few details of the boxy coordinating jackets and skirts she offered that day.
The show opened with “a neat collection of tailleurs and sports suites (sic) … with fancy knitted woolen jackets,” a writer reporting from Paris penned for the New York Times. The linings of coats were exquisitely constructed: Baby seal, chinchilla, rabbit and mink—PETA was not yet founded—were used inside and out.
The boxy tweed separates did not scream the signature effects of the Chanel Suit ingrained in our minds today. There were no interlocking double-C’s on gold buttons and stylized trim around the edging. But the silhouette was there, as was the easy elegance of the lined tweed and complex construction. The concept was based on menswear but softened to fit a woman. Hems were weighted down to create better drape and silk linings ran between the fabrics as well as inside the structure of the garment for a more uniform silhouette. These couture details, among others, created a perfect fit.
On this day in 1923, the grandest points of Chanel’s career were ahead of her. By the 1930s she would be recognized for her many “firsts;” she would become “Coco.” In 1939 she closed her shop on account of the war, shacked up with a Nazi and then went into exile in Switzerland (espionage accusations, and all). She returned to Paris in 1954. It was then that she reintroduced the Chanel Suit as we know it today. Her legacy, as it would be again and again, was cemented. —Ali Basye
Photos: Top: Coco Chanel shows how to wear one of her signature Chanel Suits, circa 1950s. Bottom: We couldn’t find an image or illustration of the tweed suit introduced on July 5, 1923, but this picture shows Chanel suits and separates in jersey from the early 1920s. Photographers unknown.