Permanent companion of Audrey Hepburn, regularly worn by Lady Di, glorified by scores of young women of our time : If one had to put a finger on what made Chanel’s shoulder bag become a mystic centerpiece of the female silhouette that has lost nothing of its charme over the years, it’s because it perfectly incarnates the image of modern women. A free woman, active but elegant at the same time.
Coco Chanel – through clothing and accessories – significantly contributed to the eclosion of the modern woman. Her hands always busy clasping a bag when she went out, Gabrielle Chanel decided she had to restore the freedom of movement of her fellow women and added a shoulder strap to her leather bag (made from lamb or veal skin) so women could wear it over their shoulder. For the shoulder strap she found inspiration in men’s fashion (as she did often), in this case in the straps of shoulder bags used by the French military. She also added a small pocket for bank notes on the back – money that a modern women had on her own, not money that she had to ask for. This bold move, sheltered by its elegance, overthrew the dresscode and, along the way, the code of conduct of the early 20th century.
25 years later and following a longer absence from fashion, Coco Chanel challenged the rules again – this time after the WW2. The dress code (and the style of Dior) became heavily influenced by her famous feminine suits whose stylish but practical appeal needed only one addition for perfection: the improved version of her leather shoulder bag, the 2.55, whose name derives from the date of its creation in February 1955. The bag was no longer a simple accessory, it became an integral part of the female form.
The centerpiece of Coco Chanel’s design work also tells us something about the often painful life of its creator. A chain like the one Coco Chanel used as the shoulder strap for her bags was attached to the belt of the gards in the orphanage in Aubazines she grew up in, holding the keys that trapped her inside. The same orphanage inspired the recurring use of bordeaux colors – matching the color of the uniform she had to wear as a child. The same bordeaux color one finds inside the 2.55. The quilted leather, another distinctive mark of her handbags, is inspired by the vests worn by the jockeys Coco Chanel saw on the race tracks when she was younger. And the twist turn lock, dubbed « Mademoiselle », is a reminder that she never married after the man she loved died in a car accident.
In 1983, after Coco Chanel’s death, Karl Lagerfeld became chief designer of Chanel. Lagerfeld helped make the bag the icon it is today. Mindful of its spirit and its history he added discrete but important details such as the leather ribbon in the shoulder strap and the crossed double C around the lock. Every season, the designer re-interpreted Coco Chanel’s leather bag and played with its shape, colors and materials without ever diluting its original design. The heir of Coco Chanel obviously succeeded as the prices for a 2.55 have quadrupled in the last decade and the demand show no signs of weakening.
The bag’s high price certainly corresponds with its prestigious image (that the fashion house of Chanel, of course, has every intention to keep). It does, however, also reflect the hard work that is going into making an item like this. Ten hours of manual work and six artisans are necessary to create the twenty-four different pieces that, sewn together, make a 2.55.