by Gabriel Bell
Familiar to anyone who's flipped through the society pages in the last few decades, Chanel's 2.55—named for the month and year of its debut—has survived the caprice of time and periodic tinkering by Karl Lagerfeld unscathed. With Lagerfeld's anniversary "Red Carpet" edition sheathed in a daring velveteen crimson and his new worn-leather variation for fall lacking the famous interlocked "C"s clasp, the Grand Dame of pouches is still turning heads. Interesting to note, then, that this status symbol was the product of some trying times at the House of Chanel.
In the early '50s, Gabrielle Chanel was at the tail-end of a self-imposed exile from fashion. Juggling a very public legal battle, general disdain for her behavior during WWII, growing competition from Dior's Paul Poiret, and the creation of her first runway show in 14 years, the living legend despaired during one of her famously talkative fittings that she had, "lost [her] touch." These were strong words from the woman who once boasted, "there are many Duchesses, but only one Chanel," after being dumped by the Duke of Westminster. When she finally brought her flowing, modern designs to the runway in a show that became a fashion benchmark, she was pilloried in the British press—a hard blow for the lifelong Anglophile. But Coco was used to walking uphill in her heels. By the next year, many critics had come around to her unconstructed approach to womenswear; her next show featured the masterful 2.55.
A testament to Chanel's philosophy of refined simplicity, the 2.55 was, at the time, considered small enough to remain elegant, but large enough to serve as more than a decorative clutch. Moreover, the 2.55 used a shoulder strap—something common in downmarket products, but rare in luxury circles. The modern model of the self-made woman, Chanel saw nothing unfeminine about keeping her hands busy, and she created clothes and accessories that matched her vanguard lifestyle. Also, the lambskin bag represents the collision of two of Chanel's great fascinations.
The much-imitated chain-strap is perhaps the most famous expression of her free use of costume jewelry and the purse's quilted face—stolen from jockey jackets—echoes her love for sportswear and all things equestrian. While those who sport the 2.55 today might miss these references, they would have been readily apparent to Chanel's audience. The mixture of masculinity, chintz, and sport in an undeniably elegant package simultaneously ruffled the feathers of the fashion elite and sent them running to the store. It was, and still is, pure Coco.
From the smallest Fendi to the biggest Birkin, a purse can lend glamour to any ensemble, be it Levi's or Lacroix, but many "It" bags take the express from red carpet to dead storage. All the more reason, then, to celebrate the 50th birthday of Chanel's iconic 2.55 purse—the ultimate bag for all time.