Chains of Chanel


Gilt chains are a recurring visual theme in the Chanel lexicon. Beginning in the 1920s, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel promoted costume jewelry as an alternative to jewelry made of gold and studded with pearls and precious stones. Chanel didn't just promote costume jewelry, she also wore it herself, pairing bold necklaces of faux pearls, gilt and glass stones with her straightforward daywear. In a famous 1937 photo by Horst P. Horst, Chanel casually reclines and her necklaces fall to the side. Who cares if they are real or faux? In 1938, it was said that her " "gold" necklaces were the biggest and most flamboyant in Paris."1

After 1953, when Chanel emerged from retirement, she applied gilt chains to her garments and accessories for both decorative and functional purposes. The now iconic quilted leather Chanel bag with a chain strap was first introduced in 1955, and is often called 2.55 because it was released in February 1955. Based on a bag Chanel used in the 1920s, this modest rectangular bag has a chain handle that can be slung over the shoulder, or carried at the elbow. A Chanel suit also features a gilt chain, though it is frequently hidden from sight. The jacket always features a lightly quilted lining with a gilt chain hand-stitched to the interior hem of the jacket. The appearance of chain is echoed in braided trim that is often used to reinforce and decorate cuffs, collar and pockets of the suit jacket.

Karl Lagerfeld
Gift of Barbara Bundy

In his designs for Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld has often reworked the iconic signatures of Coco Chanel. In this black wool dress, Lagerfeld pays homage to Chanel by layering trompe l'oeil chains at the waist of a sleeveless black wool dress. A mix of leather, gold embroidery and bugle beads, the chains reference Chanel’s love of costume jewelry and the casual, carefree way that Chanel wore her own jewelry. The simple silhouette and black ground serve as the perfect foil for the richness of the appliqued belts.


1 "New Costume Jewelry" New York Times 30 Jan. 1938: 80.


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