How Coco Chanel Revolutionized the Modern Handbag
Chanel’s classic 2.55 Flap, amidst today’s miniature Jacquemus wonders and compact Gucci belt bags, may not initially appear groundbreaking. But travel back in time and you’d find French aristocracy in awe of its audacity. In her youth, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel wore trousers and shocked society by designing garments made of jersey, a material previously reserved for men’s underwear. Then it was the little black dress, its color — once synonymous with mourning — now a symbol of elegance. In 1929, Chanel made waves again. This time, it was with one simple addition to the everyday handbag: a chain shoulder strap.
Chanel’s innovation was practical, versatile and chic, and a step towards liberating women from cumbersome handle bags. During the early 20th century, women carried pocketbooks in their hand or on their wrist. For centuries, women had carried pocketbooks beneath their skirts, but as skirts narrowed in the early 1900s, this was no longer possible. As time progressed, women were employed in the workforce, and their new day-to-day lifestyle required them to keep more possessions — and their new hard-earned income — with them.
Though this feature is commonplace today, at its inception the bag’s shoulder strap was deemed low-brow and unladylike; the idea for the strap itself is said to have been lifted from soldiers’ packs in WWI. But Chanel, always the rule breaker and risk taker, was more concerned with its purpose than her reputation. “I got fed up with holding my purses in my hands and losing them,” she famously said, “so I added a strap.” The bag made its official post-war debut in February of 1955, taking its name from the date of its release. It became a beacon of modernity.
The 2.55 Flap bag’s many design elements are rooted in Chanel’s upbringing and personality. The chain strap was perhaps inspired by the nuns and their key chains in the convent orphanage where she grew up. The original bag’s burgundy interior lining was reminiscent of her Catholic schoolgirl uniform. As she got older, Chanel became an unwavering fan of horse racing and jockeys, and the bag’s signature quilting conveys an undoubtedly equestrian feeling. The bag’s hidden zipper compartment was supposedly used by Chanel herself to stash love letters when she was involved in a secret affair. And the Mademoiselle turn-lock closure, though perhaps named after her death, alludes to her perpetual status as an unmarried single woman.
Chanel passed away in 1971, and Karl Lagerfeld took the reins in 1983, continuing Chanel’s legacy as an unparalleled maison. Lagerfeld created the Classic Flap bag by adding the interlocking CC clasps, and changed the strap to a completely different chain, inspired by Chanel’s grosgrain-and-chain belts. As soon as Lagerfeld relaunched the Double Flap bag, a low-slung purse hanging at the waist became trendy. In the eighties, women had the largest disposable income they’d ever had in history, and they spent it on bags and accessories. And nearly everyone copied Chanel. From Prada and Louis Vuitton to Valentino, Dior and Saint Laurent, it’s hard to find a designer that does not offer some form of chain-strap bag.
In 2005, Lagerfeld reissued the 2.55 Double Flap with the Mademoiselle turn-lock closure and a bijoux chain strap, bringing the original design back into the spotlight. But in the past thirty-five years, the chain-strap flap in general has become a standard silhouette, along with Kelly bags à la Hermès, satchels, hobo bags and totes.
Other notable innovations have emerged as well, elevating athletic gear and streetwear to ultra-luxe standards. Prada’s popular tessuto backpacks use a nylon fabrication that is commonly used in performance wear. Gucci has also transformed the fanny pack from ’90s dad accessory to full-blown statement piece. As the world of fashion continues to churn out new iterations of old favorites and trends trickle up and down, it’s hard to say what the next big bag trend will be. But in terms of the classics? Well, the chain-strap bag isn’t going anywhere.
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