TIME Style

How Poverty Shaped Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel
Apic / Getty Images Gabrielle, called Coco, Chanel (1883-1971), seen here before 1914

Aug. 19, 1883: Coco Chanel is born

Coco Chanel’s story is the classic tale of rags-to-designer-tweed, a stylish Dickensian drama. Born in dire poverty to unwed parents on this day, Aug. 19, in 1883, she was shuffled off to an orphanage and raised by Catholic nuns after her mother died.

Smart and unsentimental, she made the most of her hardship, gathering her experiences like fabric for future designs. The 2009 biopic Coco Before Chanel shows the wheels turning even in the orphanage, where, as TIME’s reviewer put it, “she stares at the nuns around her, downloading the crisp whites of their wimples for future use.”

Everything Chanel encountered among the very poor became material for the fashions she’d later design for the very rich. “She invented the genre pauvre, or poor look,” TIME wrote in 1957. “[She] put women into men’s jersey sweaters, created a simple dress based on a sailor tricot. She used a ditchdigger’s scarf, a mechanic’s blouse, a waitress’ white collar and cuffs, popularized slacks, backless shoes, cotton dresses.”

Of course, the very simplicity of her fashions was part of their charm, as TIME concluded in 1960, praising “their straightforward design and use of ordinary fabrics,” and noting, “They can be easily copied, cheaply mass-produced.”

Chanel herself said, per TIME, “Some people think luxury is the contrary of being poor. No, it is the contrary of vulgarity.”

Her childhood had instilled in Chanel resourcefulness and razor-sharp survival instincts, which were the keys to her success — but didn’t necessarily make her likeable.

Although she couldn’t sketch and didn’t like to sew, according to a 1931 New Yorker profile, she established herself in the fashion world through a series of liaisons with wealthy men, starting with a French officer who, per the New York Times, “installed her in his chateau, taught her to conduct herself with high style on horseback and, generally, gave her the skills she needed to make her way up through society.”

But her opportunism caught up with Chanel after World War II, when the maker of one of the world’s best-selling fragrances came away smelling not-so-sweet. She had a wartime love affair with a German officer, collaborated with the Nazis in France and may even have spied for them. And, under the anti-Semitic laws of Vichy France, she sought to dispossess the Jewish business partners who had helped finance production of her famous perfume, arguing that the company “should be Aryanized,” according to the author of The Secret of Chanel No. 5.

The stain of her wartime misdeeds lingered. When she reappeared on the fashion scene in 1954, per TIME, “her name still had ‘disgraced’ attached to it.” Americans, however, managed to forgive and forget, at least enough to snap up her clothing line. The Chanel suit, if not Chanel herself, retained its lasting appeal.

By the 1960s, she was more controversial for lashing out against the most beloved fashion of the time: the miniskirt.

“Dégoütant,” she said of the trend in 1966. “Now I know why men don’t like women anymore.” She kept the hemline of her iconic skirt suits where it had always been: just below the knee.

Read more about Chanel from 1960, here in the TIME archives: High Priestess of High Fashion: Gabrielle Chanel

TIME Style

Model With Down Syndrome Will Walk in New York Fashion Week

She's really excited

Madeline Stuart, the 18-year-old Australian model, has just nabbed a stylish new gig for fall: She’ll be hitting the catwalk during New York Fashion Week this September.

Stuart, who has Down syndrome, announced her exciting news on Instagram with the caption: “Guess who is modelling in NY for NY fashion week xx.” In the snapshot, Stuart revealed she will be walking the runway for FTL MODA in September.

Guess who is modelling in NY for NY fashion week xx

A photo posted by Madeline Stuart (@madelinesmodelling_) on

The brand wrote on its Facebook, “It is with the utmost joy and pride that we announce Madeline Stuart’s participation in #FTLModa #NYFW #SS2016 presentation. Beautiful Madeline will brighten up the runway at the #VanderbiltHall on September 13th 2015. Stay tuned and RSVP!”

It’s been a very fashionable year for the model; in July, Stuart landed two major modeling jobs, appearing in the national ad campaigns for the American fitness brand Manifesta, as well as the eco-friendly handbag label, everMaya.

“We are absolutely thrilled to work with a talent like Madeline on our newest national ad campaign,” Damian Graybelle, everMaya’s president, said in a statement at the time. “All of us at everMaya feel very strongly about creating a brand that is rooted in a spirit of inclusion and providing opportunities for those who begin life with barriers to success.” (And they even created a bag named after her.)

This article originally appeared on People.com

TIME Style

The Invention That Spawned a Fashion Revolution

Isaac Merrit Singer's (American inventor) first sewing machine, patented 1851. From Genius Rewarded or the Story of the Sewing Machine, New York, 1880.Wood engraving.
Universal Images Group / Getty Images Wood engraving image of Isaac Merrit Singer's first sewing machine, patented 1851.

Aug. 12, 1851: Isaac Singer patents the sewing machine

The Singer sewing machine was so revolutionary that even Mahatma Gandhi, who eschewed all other machines, made an exception for it. After learning to sew on a Singer in a British jail, Gandhi called it “one of the few useful things ever invented.”

Many outside the prison population agreed. The Singer Company became one of America’s first multinational corporations, and a staggeringly successful one at that. At a time when the average American income totaled $500, Singer sewing machines were selling for $125 — and they were selling. As TIME noted, by the time Isaac Singer died in 1875, his company was turning a profit of $22 million a year.

Singer didn’t invent the first sewing machine, but the one he patented on this day, Aug. 12, in 1851, was the most practical — and the most commercially viable. Its success was a testament to Singer’s industrious spirit: he’d worked variously as an actor, a ditch digger and a cabinetmaker before striking it rich in the sewing field.

Fans of the new machine hailed from all walks of life. Among the most notable:

  • The publisher of America’s first fashion magazine, Lady’s Book, who gushed: “Next to the plough, [the sewing machine] is perhaps humanity’s most blessed instrument.” (After it became a fixture among dressmakers, women’s fashions changed dramatically, per TIME — “bedecked with ribbons and yards of machine-made frills.”)
  • The Wright brothers, who made the covering for their first airplane wing on a Singer sewing machine.
  • Admiral Richard Byrd, the polar explorer, who brought six of the machines along on his Antarctic expeditions.
  • Russia’s Czar Alexander III, who put his soldiers to work on Singer sewing machines to make 250,000 tents for the Imperial Army.

Singer himself cared less about the usefulness of the device than about the wealth it brought him, however. “I don’t care a damn for the invention. The dimes are what I’m after,” he once said, according to TIME. He was perhaps more fond of his other creation: the first payment plan, which allowed his customers to pay in installments for a machine too expensive for most to afford as a lump sum.

It was in keeping with Singer’s business ideals, then, that the company, which had diversified heavily in the 1960s and 1970s, ditched sewing machines altogether in the mid-1980s — in the face of increased competition from Asian manufacturers and a steep decline in home sewing — to focus on its more profitable aerospace division. (It spun off its sewing operations to a separate firm, which continues to manufacture under the Singer name.)

So while Singer’s invention may have impressed Gandhi, his life philosophy likely did not. Singer amassed a personal fortune of about $13 million; some of it, per TIME, “supported the 24 children that Singer fathered by two wives and at least three mistresses. He died in England at the age of 64, while constructing a half-a-million-dollar mansion that he referred to facetiously as his ‘wigwam.’”

Read more about the Singer corporation’s decision to stop making sewing machines, here in the TIME archives: Dropped Stitch

TIME Pop Culture

From Kitsch to Park Avenue: The Cultural History of the Plastic Pink Flamingo

plastic-pink-flamingo
Getty Images

The flamingo has taken a rather tumultuous flight through an ever-changing landscape of taste and class

In 1957, a 21-year-old art school graduate named Don Featherstone created his second major design for the Massachusetts-based lawn and garden decoration manufacturer Union Products: a three-dimensional plastic pink flamingo propped up by two thin, metal legs that could be plunged into soft dirt.

Featherstone’s duck and flamingo ornaments sold in pairs for US$2.76, and were advertised as “Plastics for the Lawn.” They became simultaneously popular and derided in the late 1950s and remain a recognizable species of American material culture.

Featherstone died this past June, but over five decades after he submitted his design, the plastic pink flamingo continues to grace American lawns and homes. While many are quick to label the plastic ornament as the epitome of kitsch, the flamingo has actually taken a rather tumultuous flight through an ever-changing landscape of taste and class.

A product of its time

All three of the ornament’s basic elements – plastic material, pink color and the flamingo design – have a particular relevance to the late 1950s.

The year 1957 was the year of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock and the ‘57 Chevy, of popular plastic toys like Wham-O’s hula hoop and the Frisbee – all icons of midcentury nostalgia. The late 1950s also witnessed the solidification of a commodity-driven suburban way of life, along with a host of new anxieties over class and status.

In the postwar era, cheap, sturdy and versatile plastics were becoming an increasingly popular material for mass-produced commercial products, from Tupperware to Model 500 rotary phones.

Design historian Jeffrey Meikle discusses how this era was referred to as “a new Rococo marked by extravagance, excess, and vulgarity.” Many design and cultural critics pilloried plastic for its ability to easily depart from established design principles, though consumers and manufacturers kept the craze going.

The fad was clearly waning by the 1960s. In a famous scene from The Graduate, actor Dustin Hoffman expresses disillusionment in the “great future in plastics.”

And then there’s the color pink. Art historian Karal Ann Marling explains that in the 1950s, pink was perceived as “young, daring – and omnisexual.” She points out that popular celebrities like Mamie Eisenhower, Jayne Mansfield and Elvis Presley loved to incorporate pink in their wardrobes, their bedroom decor and – in the case of Elvis – their cars.

Featherstone’s design wasn’t the first time flamingos swooped into American culture, either. In fact, Americans had long cherished the exotic bird, native to the Caribbean and parts of South America, and this love affair came to a head in 1957 with an explosion in popularity of Caribbean culture.

Caribbean-American pop star Harry Belafonte’s album Calypso, which contained the hit single Banana Boat Song (Day-O), dominated the Billboard charts in 1956. And as a 1957 LIFE Magazine cover story attests, Americans were flocking to Caribbean resorts in record numbers.

Jennifer Price wrote the most comprehensive essay on the plastic pink flamingo in her book Flight Maps. She details how 19th-century European and American settlers hunted flamingos to extinction in Florida.

But as the state drew wealthy vacationers in the 1910s and 1920s, resort owners imported the pink birds to populate their grounds. They even named Miami Beach’s first luxury hotel “The Flamingo.” Soon, Florida and these exotic-looking birds became synonymous with wealth and leisure.

As the century progressed, the development of interstate highways and a rise in disposable income made Florida a practical destination for middle-class and working-class families. Vacation spots made accessible by the Interstate Highway System cashed in on the style and flair of the Caribbean fad. The flamingo was now associated with a region that was both exotic and affordable.

Out in the wild

Despite the plastic pink flamingo’s resonance with so many things 1957, the ornament was almost instantly ridiculed as kitsch, which was a particularly damning designation given its habitat: the American lawn.

As one of the few outward social spaces in the privacy-obsessed architecture of suburbia, lawns were (and still are) subject to extreme social pressure. They were perceived as both a symbol of the American dream and a productive way to spend one’s newfound leisure time.

However, “Keeping up with the Joneses” was less about outspending your neighbor than it was about conformity and maintaining appearances. The preferred look of middle class lawns was well-manicured and free of ornament, with flowers abutting the house.

To homeowners’ associations, the plastic pink flamingo’s bright color and synthetic material was an affront to the middle-class yearning for sophistication (though a piece of pink plastic is no less “natural” than a lawn maintained by DDT and Miracle-Gro).

A cultural migration

On the other hand – as Jennifer Price points out – working-class consumers tended to express themselves differently, favoring loud, playful and decorative schemes for their homes and lawn.

Flamingos sprouting from small lawns in Catholic neighborhoods seemed less out of place among concrete Virgin Mary statues and tiny St Francis fountains.

In the 1950s, publications like LIFE propagated a narrowly defined definition of middle class style and taste. So the display of the plastic pink flamingo in the 1950s and 1960s was perhaps not mere unsophisticated kitsch, but rather an overt rejection of the “middle-brow striving for the high-brow” lawn aesthetic.

While cultural critics like Gillo Dorfles have maintained that lawn decorations like garden gnomes and sculptured animals were an “archetypal image conjured up by the word ‘kitsch,’” a younger generation saw the plastic pink flamingo as a rebellion against the “stay normal” pressures of postwar suburbia.

Their camp appropriation of the plastic pink flamingos crossed the boundaries of good and bad taste, making Pink Flamingos a fitting title for John Waters’ 1972 transgressive film about two contenders for the title “filthiest person alive.”

Eventually, this transgressive power began to also wane, and the product faced possible extinction in the early 2000s due to the rising cost of oil.

Luckily the flock has survived (you can still purchase a pair for around $20 on Amazon). Today plastic pink flamingos have even been spotted gracing planters on a brownstone off Park Avenue in Manhattan, illustrating just how far the bird has migrated among American classes and tastes.

This article originally appeared on The ConversationThe Conversation

TIME White House

See Michelle Obama’s Best Outfits of 2015

Whether attending the White House Correspondents' Dinner or traveling to India, Michelle Obama always makes sure she's a First Lady in style

TIME Style

Hermès Birkin Bag Sold for Record $221k at Auction

CHINA-HONG KONG-CHRISTIE-PREVIEW (CN)
Li Peng—Xinhua/Landov Visitors view the displayed expensive bags during the preview of Christie's Hong Kong 2015 spring season in Hong Kong on May 28, 2015.

The diamond-encrusted bag went to an unknown buyer for a staggering $221,846

A Hermès Birkin with diamonds set a record in Hong Kong on Monday as the most expensive handbag sold at an auction — ever.

The bag was up for auction at Christie’s afternoon handbags and accessories sale and sold for 1.72 million Hong Kong dollars or $221,846, reports the Wall Street Journal. The Birkin was bagged by a phone bidder, whose identity is unknown.

The latest luxury sale beat out the previous record holder, which was also a Hermès Birkin bag that sold for $203,150 at a 2011 Heritage Auctions sale in New York. The WSJ points out that though a diamond and gold evening bag once owned by actress Elizabeth Taylor sold for $218,500 through Christie’s in New York in 2011, that bag was listed in the jewelry category.

Hong Kong and China has been experiencing a slump in luxury item sales as both Gucci and Chanel have been slashing prices in that market in recent months. But the record-setting sale suggests there’s still an appetite for high-end accessories — at least at the auction block. Though the Hermès Birkin that was sold on Monday went for a hefty price, it should be noted that the luxury company has other versions of the Birkin that are priced much, much higher.

 

TIME Style

What TIME Got Wrong About the Invention of Blue Jeans

"Pants don't wear worth a hoot up in the diggins"

As origin stories go, TIME’s account of how Levi Strauss came up with the idea for his trademark denim pants is hard to beat. Here’s how the magazine told it in a 1950 story on Levi Strauss & Co.’s 100th anniversary:

When 20-year-old Levi Strauss sailed from Manhattan round Cape Horn to San Francisco in 1850 to seek a fortune in the gold fields, he carried a roll of canvas in his baggage. He intended to sell it to a tentmaker to get enough cash for a grubstake. But when he got ashore, the complaint of a friendly miner gave him a better idea. “Pants don’t wear worth a hoot up in the diggins,” said the miner. “Can’t get a pair strong enough to last no time.”

Levi promptly went into the clothing business. He had a tailor cut a pair of trousers from his canvas roll, and soon the miner was strolling all over town, boasting how strong were these “pants of Levi’s.” With one satisfied customer, Strauss found he had a steady stream of men who wanted “Levis.” In a shop on San Francisco’s California Street, he began making dozens of pairs of the waist-high overalls which defied the wear & tear of bronc-riding, gold-mining and plain ordinary living.

Years later, the article continued, a miner known only as “Alkali” annoyed his tailor by regularly carrying rocks around that broke his pocket seams. The tailor got the idea to use rivets on the corners of the pockets for stabilization; those rivets were the source of the idea for Strauss’ signature rivets.

Alas, the real story doesn’t quite measure up. As the company tells it, Strauss went West to open a dry-goods store for gold miners; dry goods were the family business, established by his brothers before Levi even got to the United States. To be fair, he did sell cloth—but as a businessman, not an ingenious fortune-seeker. Furthermore, the crucial tailor tip-off about the rivets came from a customer of the San Francisco Levi Strauss & Co. store, who was looking for a business partner to back the idea. On this day, May 20, in 1873, Strauss and his partner, Jacob Davis, were given a patent for work pants strengthened with rivets—the first example of what we now know as blue jeans.

By 1950, per TIME’s count, Levi’s had made 95 million pairs. (The going rate in 1950 was $3.50 a pop.) As for Strauss, he died in 1902.

Read the full 1950 story, here in the TIME Vault: Iron Bottoms

TIME Style

See Some of History’s Most Extraordinary Jewels

Princess Mathilde's diamond isn't the only one with history

It’s no surprise that diamonds are expensive, but one lot in a sale of jewels being held on Tuesday at Sotheby’s in Geneva goes above and beyond: the “magnificent fancy vivid pink diamond ring” dubbed the Historic Pink is expected to be sold for up to 17.5 million Swiss Francs, which is nearly $19 million.

That price is due to more than just the 8.72-carat stone at the center of the ring. The diamond is believed to have belonged to Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, a niece of Napoleon Bonaparte and member of the Russian royal family who became a famous Parisian socialite. According to Sotheby’s research, the stone was sold as part of a collection from Princess Mathilde in 1904, after which it can be traced directly to the collection of its recent owner, Huguette Clark. Clark herself was pretty much as close to a princess as an American can get: the heiress and philanthropist, who died in 2011 after a reclusive old age, came from spectacular wealth and pedigree.

But the Historic Pink is far from the only gem with a rich back story. Here are some of history’s fanciest and most famous jewels.

TIME On Our Radar

Mario Testino: ‘I Believe Men Have Changed’

Renowned fashion and celebrity photographer Mario Testino’s new book, SIR, attempts to redefine masculinity.

Over a celebrated, three-decade career, Mario Testino, the godfather of fashion photography, has become renowned for capturing the faces of the world’s most notable women, from Princess Diana to international supermodels such as Kate Moss and Gisele Bündchen. But a significant body of his work has long gone unnoticed—intimate and playful portraits of men depicted in unconventional societal roles.

“I have never thought of myself as just a photographer of women, or women’s fashion, and even though I am probably most known for that,” Testino tells TIME. “[A book about men] is something I have wanted to do for a long time, and over the years I have had different ideas about it, but it never felt quite ready. I guess I didn’t feel like I had fully explored the possibilities.”

Now, the images have resurfaced through SIR, Testino’s latest and largest photography book to date. The limited edition book, published by Taschen with a print run of 1,000, is signed by the photographer and features more than 300 photographs dedicated solely to the men Testino documented over the last 30 years.

Mario Testino—Mario Testino

Born and raised in Lima, Testino explored new continents far removed from his native Peru, to Rio de Janeiro, where as a teenager he became fascinated by the Brazilians’ indulgence with the perfect body, and to London where he embarked on his photographic career. During this journey, the prolific photographer not only witnessed the evolution of men’s style and self-perception, but his boundary-pushing approach to portraiture actually contributed to the transformation: Josh Hartnett in smudged red lipstick and fake eyelashes; Mick Jagger and Keith Richards locked in a brotherly hug in a Los Angeles hotel room; David Beckham snapped kissed by Orlando Bloom at a party in Milan.

“I believe men have changed,” Testino says. “I feel that men are more open to ideas and possibilities in many things including what they wear and how they look. Men have had these ideas put upon them about how to be that are generations old, but I think today they are more open to live their lives in a way that is right for them and not to follow a principle which is outmoded.”

Michelle Molloy, who edited this gallery, is a senior international photo editor at TIME.

Ye Ming is a contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

TIME Style

See Beyonce Prove She’s the Queen of Sheer at the 2015 Met Gala

Other celebrities may try, but no one does the red carpet like Beyonce

Beyonce proved once again that she knows how to both make an entrance and capture the headlines.

While her appearance at last year’s Costume Institute Gala at the Met was dominated by Elevator-gate , the superstar has this year ensured that everyone is talking about her on her own terms. Showing up late to the annual event, Beyonce walked the red carpet in a shockingly sheer Givenchy gown that all but guaranteed every eye would be on her.

Read next: Solange Knowles Dazzles in Unique Giles Dress at Met Gala 2015

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