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Tweed is not often associated with the most glamorous aspects of the fashion industry. The stiff fabric is reminiscent of a grandmother’s upholstery, the opposite of what you might picture to be stepping off the runway. Then, entered Coco Chanel’s classic two-piece tweed suit. Worn by first ladies and princesses alike, this infamous look has persisted through the decades, and its iconic silhouette cannot be separated from tweed, given Chanel’s pioneer use of it. Coco Chanel was able to take this scratchy textile, and associate it with a classic silhouette that has not only withstood the test of time, but transformed the way that the fashion industry looked at the fabric.

Originally a way to free women from the restrictive corsets of the time, Chanel wanted to use non-glamourous materials that would be elegant, and yet allow the wearer to move freely. Controversially designating this look “poverty deluxe,” she went to Scottish twill mills, discovered the diversity of the fabric, and then set about feminizing tweed. Even through going in and out of style since its original use, tweed has been utilized for clothing that could be worn comfortably and fashionably. It holds shape, while simultaneously hugging the body. Chanel was drawn to tweed because it could be manufactured simply and its production had not changed for centuries. She used Harris Tweed, and was able to produce these suits for fairly cheap, because of the way she sourced directly from twill mills. This fabric had not been used in haute couture, and Chanel was able to sell the suits for significantly more than she produced them, earning high profit margin. Modern tweed used by fashion designers is lighter due to advancements in the wool cleaning process, but every other aspect has remained almost identical to the original tweed that Chanel sourced.

In addition to the fabric being revolutionary, the silhouette itself was radical for the time. Chanel emphasized that nothing highlighted femininity better than menswear. She even is remembered to have borrowed clothing and inspiration from her lover’s wardrobe (her lover at the time? none other than the Duke of Westminster!) The two-piece tweed suit was the first overwhelming success in this concept, denoting it and Chanel further as fashion elements. To this day, we still see the influence of women wearing men’s clothes and it’s still a dominant theme in fashion. Breaking gender codes with clothing might sound like a recent development, but it finds its origins with the advent of this tweed two-piece, and with Chanel’s genius.

The two-piece suit has been associated with many cultural phenomena, but most notably the principles of the First Wave Feminists of the early 20th century. The look– its unrestrictive and masculine nature– became associated with sexual liberation, and it was worn by some of the most influential women at the time. The idea that women could wear a silhouette that wasn’t a corset or a full skirt, and still have what they were wearing be fashionable and socially acceptable, was remarkable. Bridgette Bardot, Barbara Walters, Jackie Kennedy, and Lady Di all wearing this look simply emphasized its status as chic and as something worn by women who had influence.

Today, the tweed Chanel suit’s effect can still be felt on the runways of fashion week- most notably, those of Jeremy Scott and Moschino. Just recently, For Love and Lemons released the “Dionne Cropped Blazer,” retailing for $199, a tweedy item that includes the descriptors “decorative welt pockets” and “boxy silhouette.”

Chanel’s influence is still felt today, and will likely remain a cult classic for decades to come.

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