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Next, we're going to examine the work of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, who's credited with freeing women's clothing from its old constraints. Clothes from the House of Chanel are on view today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports.

SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:

Mademoiselle Coco Chanel had a consistent fashion vocabulary. She used soft tweeds, sewed braid along the edge of her jackets, put white fabric camellias on lapels, made purses of quilted leather and blackened the tips of her beige sling-back shoes, all in a mist of Chanel No. 5, still the world's top-selling perfume. Oh, and in 1926, she invented a basic piece of female equipment.

Mr. HAROLD KODA (Curator, Metropolitan Museum of Art): It's a little black dress, a piece of black wool jersey that has been lined completely in silk satin.

STAMBERG: Harold Koda is co-curator of the Met's Chanel show.

Mr. KODA: To the uninitiated, it would seem very much like something a concierge might wear in an apartment building.

STAMBERG: But that 1920s working girl's dress would not have been lined in satin or felt so fabulous on the skin. Chanel calls her simple black dresses little nothings, no waistlines, no frills, no foppery. When Karl Lagerfeld took over the House of Chanel in 1983, he continued and animated these ideas.

Mr. KODA: You see Karl Lagerfeld channeling this kind of strategy by taking a beautiful very simple black satin cocktail dress and covering it with a four-ply cashmere cardigan, dressing it down.

STAMBERG: Coco Chanel got cold in the French resort town of Deauville one day and threw on one of her rich lover's sweaters. Soon she began making such casual sweaters, and wealthy socialites snapped them up. Chanel got lots of ideas from menswear. Her boyfriend's clothes always looked so comfortable. She took jersey from men's underwear and cut it into dresses and suits. Curator Harold Koda says today, Karl Lagerfeld turns the underwear into an evening gown.

Mr. KODA: He's taken a man's undershirt, put on the Chanel-linked C logo as a logo tank top, and we've put on it Chanel pearls, but they're pearls of gargantuan scale. Each one's the size of a softball.

STAMBERG: It's like saying, `You want Chanel, I'll give you Chanel.'

Mr. KODA: And if you want Chanel that's lively and doesn't take itself seriously.

(Soundbite from a Broadway play)

Ms. KATHARINE HEPBURN: (As Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel) My mind's made up. I've got to work, for memories lose calories and now I'm undernourished.

STAMBERG: On Broadway years ago, Katharine Hepburn played Chanel at a very serious point in her life--her attempt to make a comeback after 15 years away from fashion. During World War II, Chanel closed her Paris shop. `This is no time for fashion,' she said. Instead, she whiled away the war years at the Ritz with another lover, this time a handsome Nazi intelligence officer. After the war and charges of collaboration, Chanel quit France, but eventually went back to Paris and haute couture. In 1954, when she was 71, Coco Chanel reopened her shop on rue Cambon and unveiled a new collection to, among others, a 17-year-old German high school student named Karl Lagerfeld.

Mr. KARL LAGERFELD (House of Chanel): I saw the first collection. I liked it because for me, it was an evocation of something I had missed, the life from before World War II and all that.

STAMBERG: Young Lagerfeld began designing fashion himself not long after that visit to the House of Chanel. He worked for various couturiers--Balmain, Patou, Chloe. But French fashion reporter Francois Guenet says Lagerfeld was fortunate to have been asked to take over Chanel. He inherited her beloved fashion vocabulary and the simple, basic designs that remain timeless.

Mr. FRANCOIS GUENET (French Fashion Reporter): And you could not wear today a Dior suit like the new look. You would look of a costume, even if it's beautiful. But Chanel, you could wear. So I think it's a great luck for a designer to be--he was very lucky. Because before that, he was just another designer.

STAMBERG: Karl Lagerfeld continued the wearability, updating Chanel's ideas, making them new and inspired. There's a day suit he did two years ago. You can see it really well in the Met show's terrific catalog. This Lagerfeld suit has Mademoiselle's typical cardigan jacket outlined at the neck and waistline. The fabric is wool boucle, ivory and beige with shots of coral, some gold beads, a sprinkle of sequins. And here comes the real Lagerfeld part. At the cuffs and skirt, the wool has been deconstructed, taken apart so it looks as if it is unraveling, sending a confetti of pale colored dabs filtering downward, caught in midair with invisible stitches. Wow! It makes a viewer feel downright dowdy.

Chic is Greek to me. Take a look at what I'm wearing and tell me what I wouldn't be wearing if it hadn't been for Chanel.

Mr. KODA: Is that a T-shirt?

STAMBERG: Yeah.

Mr. KODA: Oh, OK.

STAMBERG: Again, curator Harold Koda.

It's just a plain, old, black T-shirt...

Mr. KODA: Black T-shirt.

STAMBERG: ...with long sleeves.

Mr. KODA: Right.

STAMBERG: Eddie Bauer, as a matter of fact.

Mr. KODA: Oh.

STAMBERG: I think it costs 20 bucks.

Mr. KODA: One of the greatest contributions that Chanel has made to women's wardrobes is the notion of sportswear components that are minimalist in approach that get dressed up with glamorous accessories. So something like a black T-shirt is not necessarily anathema to her notion of chic.

STAMBERG: Well, that's a relief. After all, Mademoiselle understood working women. She was one herself, and she worked hard. She never sketched a design. She created directly on her models. There she was in the showroom, down on her knees, her mouth full of straight pins, working and reworking a hem or an armhole until it fit just so. Fastidious Coco Chanel. All those years ago at the start of a different century, seeing a different future for women.

Ms. SUZY MENKES (International Herald Tribune): Something that I think is really strong in this exhibition is just the sense of modern clothes on a modern woman.

STAMBERG: Suzy Menkes is fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune.

Ms. MENKES: That's really Coco Chanel's legacy. She was the first woman to understand how modern women lived. You know that great line of her's about wanting to be a caterpillar by day and a butterfly by night? We know what she means. Putting on an easy, little stretchy suit by day and then blossoming at night. I mean, that's our world, it's still our world.

STAMBERG: The Chanel exhibit continues at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through August 7th. Wear black and comfy shoes.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And just in case you don't have the right outfit to go to the museum, there is a gallery of Chanel design sketches available at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

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