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The Little Black Dress
Most commonly associated with famed couturier Coco Chanel, the little black dress is a classic that has earned its place as a ubiquitous piece, hanging front and center in every woman’s closet.
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Another, less well-known, Chanel creation, the designer started producing exquisite jewelry made from more durable, affordable materials during the First World War, a somber time for fashion, when sporting more expensive gems was considered poor taste.
The third and final jewel in Chanel’s three-tiered crown is sportswear. Though popularized largely by active, athletic American women during the 1920s and 30s, sportswear too owes its genesis to the queen of understated chic, who braved the world of jersey knits while all her peers were working in luxe silks and velvets. A shout-out is also due to Jean Patou, a contemporary of Chanel’s, known for inventing the pleated tennis skirt, and significantly increasing the range of motion for women everywhere.
Before inventing topless beaches, the French actually invented the one-piece. Credit again goes to Jean Patou, whose early swimming costumes were actually made from the designer’s beloved jersey knit. Thank god for the subsequent invention of waterproof spandex.
The Kimono Jacket
The French can't lay claim to the traditional Japanese kimono. However, the first Western interpretation of the style is accredited to a Frenchman—“King of Fashion” Paul Poiret. Poiret’s creations, dating back to the Belle Epoque, bear a striking resemblance to the kimono-style jackets and blazers popular in the present day.
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No, Julia Roberts did not invent the suit for women, she just wore one to the 1990 Golden Globes. Franco-Algerian designer Yves Saint Laurent was the first to adapt a man’s tuxedo for a woman, in an iconic runway look dubbed “le smoking.”
One could argue that the hourglass was not “invented,” rather, it is simply a woman’s natural shape. That may be so, but for centuries the fashion world had no trouble perverting it for everything from corsets and the Victorian “s-bend” silhouette to the boyish flapper look of the 1920s. That all changed with French designer Christian Dior’s New Look, popular in the wake of WWII, and revived most recently by the house’s newest head, Raf Simons.
Brocade Belted Jacket, Baci (at right)
You may have guessed that this most feminine of shoe styles was invented in France, but we bet you didn’t know it was invented by a man—King Louis XIV to be exact. The flamboyant “sun king” sported heels as the sartorial manifestation of his elevated social stature. The fashion quickly caught on with all the men at court, but only a select few were permitted to wear red-soled heels, which indicated the king’s special favor. Today, red-soled stilettos continue to be an indication of status (primarily among women now), thanks to French footwear legend Christian Louboutin.
The Signature Bag
These days it seems every great fashion icon has a bag named for her. There is the “Kelly,” as in Grace, the “Birkin,” as in Jane, each more coveted than the last by those seeking to emulate these women’s signature style. This custom bag craze arguably started back in the 19th century, when French empress Eugenie (wife of Napoleon III) drafted the young Louis Vuitton to design personalized bags and boxes for all her storage and carrying needs.
Aside from the obvious—the word itself is French—bold French women have played a crucial role in elevating lingerie from “underwear” to “outerwear.” The ill-fated Marie-Antoinette was the first to rock her skivvies for all to see in an infamous portrait, La Reine en Gaulle, where she sports little more than a thin chemise (a nightgown-like undergarment of the day). More recently, designer Jean-Paul Gaultier has been responsible for some equally risqué, top drawer-inspired creations.