Chanel in 1920
19 August 1883
|Died||10 January 1971
|Parent(s)||Eugénie Jeanne Devolle
|Awards||Neiman Marcus Fashion Award, 1957|
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel (19 August 1883 – 10 January 1971) was a French fashion designer and founder of the Chanel brand. Along with Paul Poiret, Chanel was credited with liberating women from the constraints of the "corseted silhouette" and popularizing the acceptance of a sportive, casual chic look as the feminine standard in the post-World War I era. A prolific fashion creator, Chanel's influence extended beyond couture clothing. Her aesthetic design was realized in jewelry, handbags, and fragrance. Her signature scent, Chanel No. 5, has become an iconic product. She is the only fashion designer listed on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
Chanel was known for her lifelong determination, ambition, and energy which she applied to her professional and social life. She achieved both success as a business woman and social prominence thanks to the connections she made through her work. These included many artists and craftspeople to whom she became a patron. However, Chanel's life choices generated controversy, particularly her behaviour during the German occupation of France in World War II.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Personal life and early career
- 3 Established couturière
- 4 World War II
- 5 Post-war life and career
- 6 Last years
- 7 Death
- 8 Legacy as designer
- 9 In popular culture
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 Bibliography
- 13 External links
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born to an unmarried mother, Eugénie Jeanne Devolle – known as Jeanne – a laundrywoman, in the charity hospital run by the Sisters of Providence (a poorhouse) in Saumur, France. She was Jeanne's second child with Albert Chanel; the first, Julia, was born less than a year earlier. Albert Chanel was an itinerant street vendor who peddled work clothes and undergarments, living a nomadic life, traveling to and from market towns, while the family resided in rundown lodgings. In 1884, he married Jeanne Devolle, persuaded to do so by her family who had "united, effectively, to pay Albert to marry her." At birth, Chanel's name was entered into the official registry as "Chasnel". Jeanne was too unwell to attend the registration, and Albert was registered as "travelling". With both parents absent, the infant's last name was misspelled, probably due to a clerical error. The couple had five children who survived – two boys and three girls, who lived crowded into a one-room lodging in the town of Brive-la-Gaillarde.
When Gabrielle was 11, her mother died of bronchitis at the age of 31. Gabrielle's father sent his two sons out to work as farm laborers and sent his three daughters to the Corrèze, in central France, to the convent of Aubazine, whose religious order, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary, was "founded to care for the poor and rejected, including running homes for abandoned and orphaned girls". It was a stark, frugal life, demanding strict discipline. At age eighteen, Chanel, too old to remain at Aubazine, went to live in a boarding house set aside for Catholic girls in the town of Moulins.
Later in her life, Chanel would retell the story of her childhood somewhat differently; she would often include some more glamorous untruths. One in particular that stuck was that when her mother died, her father sailed for America to seek his fortune and she was sent to live with two aunts. She also claimed to have been born a decade later than 1883 and that her mother had died when she was much younger than 12.
Personal life and early career
Aspirations for a stage career
Having learned the art of sewing during her six years at Aubazine, Chanel was able to find employment as a seamstress. When not plying her needle, she sang in a cabaret frequented by cavalry officers. Chanel made her stage debut singing at a café-concert (a popular entertainment venue of the era) in a Moulins pavilion, "La Rotonde". She was among other girls dubbed poseuses, the performers who entertained the crowd between star turns. The money earned was what they managed to accumulate when the plate was passed among the audience in appreciation of their performance. It was at this time that Gabrielle acquired the name "Coco", possibly based on two popular songs with which she became identified, "Ko Ko Ri Ko", and "Qui qu'a vu Coco", or it was an allusion to the French word for kept woman, cocotte. As cafe entertainer, Chanel radiated a juvenile allure that tantalized the military habitués of the cabaret.
The year 1906 found Chanel in the spa resort town of Vichy. Vichy boasted a profusion of concert halls, theatres and cafes where Chanel hoped to find success as a performer. Chanel's youth and physical charms impressed those for whom she auditioned, but her singing voice was marginal and she failed to find stage work. Obliged to find employment, she took work at the "Grande Grille", where as a donneuse d'eau she was one of the females whose job was to dispense glasses of the purportedly curative mineral water for which Vichy was renowned. When the Vichy season ended, Chanel returned to Moulins, and her former haunt "La Rotonde". She now realized that a serious stage career was not in her future.
Balsan and Capel
It was at Moulins that Chanel met the young French ex-cavalry officer and the wealthy textile heir Étienne Balsan. At the age twenty-three, Chanel became Balsan's mistress, supplanting the courtesan Émilienne d’Alençon as his new favorite. For the next three years, she lived with him in his chateau Royallieu near Compiègne, an area known for its wooded equestrian paths and the hunting life. It was a life style of self-indulgence, Balsan's wealth and leisure allowing the cultivation of a social set who reveled in partying and the gratification of human appetites with all the implied accompanying decadence. Balsan lavished Chanel with the beauties of "the rich life"—diamonds, dresses, and pearls. Biographer Justine Picardie, in her 2010 study Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life (Harper Collins), suggests that the fashion designer's nephew, André Palasse, supposedly the only child of her sister Julia-Berthe who had committed suicide, was actually Chanel's child by Balsan.
In 1908, Chanel began an affair with one of Balsan's friends, Captain Arthur Edward 'Boy' Capel. In later years, Chanel reminisced of this time in her life: "two gentlemen were outbidding for my hot little body." Capel, a wealthy member of the English upper class, installed Chanel in an apartment in Paris. and financed Chanel's first shops. It is said that Capel's own sartorial style influenced the conception of the Chanel look. The bottle design for Chanel No. 5 had two probable origins, both attributable to the sophisticated design sensibilities of Capel. It is believed Chanel adapted the rectangular, beveled lines of the Charvet toiletry bottles he carried in his leather traveling case or it was the design of the whiskey decanter Capel used and Chanel so admired that she wished to reproduce it in "exquisite, expensive, delicate glass". The couple spent time together at fashionable resorts such as Deauville, but he was never faithful to Chanel.[nb 1] The affair lasted nine years, but even after Capel married an English aristocrat, Lady Diana Wyndham in 1918, he did not completely break off with Chanel. His death in a car accident, in late 1919, was the single most devastating event in Chanel's life.[nb 2] She commissioned the placement of a roadside memorial at the site of the accident, which she visited in later years to lay flowers in remembrance. Twenty-five years after the event, Chanel, then residing in Switzerland, confided to her friend, Paul Morand: "His death was a terrible blow to me. In losing Capel, I lost everything. What followed was not a life of happiness, I have to say."
Chanel began designing hats while living with Balsan, initially as a diversion that evolved into a commercial enterprise. She became a licensed milliner (hat maker) in 1910 and opened a boutique at 21 rue Cambon, Paris named Chanel Modes. As this location already housed an established clothing business, Chanel sold only her millinery creations at this address. Chanel's millinery career bloomed once theatre actress Gabrielle Dorziat modelled her hats in the F Noziere's play Bel Ami in 1912. Subsequently, Dorziat modelled her hats again in Les Modes.
Deauville and Biarritz
In 1913, Chanel opened a boutique in Deauville financed by Arthur Capel where she introduced deluxe casual clothes suitable for leisure and sport. The fashions were constructed from humble fabrics such as jersey and tricot, primarily used for men's underwear. The location was a prime one, in the center of town on a fashionable street. Here Chanel sold hats, jackets, sweaters, and the marinière, the sailor blouse. Chanel had the dedicated support of two family members. One was her sister, Antoinette. The other was Adrienne Chanel, a woman close to Chanel's own age, yet, remarkably her aunt; the child of a union her grandfather had late in his life. Adrienne and Antoinette were recruited to model her designs; on a daily basis the two women paraded through the town and on its boardwalks, advertising the Chanel creations.
Chanel, determined to re-create the success she had enjoyed in Deauville, opened an establishment in Biarritz in 1915. Biarritz, situated on the Côte Basque, in proximity to wealthy Spanish clients, had the status of neutrality during World War I, allowing it to become the playground for the moneyed and those exiled from their native countries by the hostilities. The Biarritz shop was installed not as a storefront, but in a villa opposite the casino. After only one year of operation, the business proved to be so lucrative that in 1916 Chanel was able to reimburse Capel his original investment—a decision Chanel made on her own, without Capel's input. It was in Biarritz that Chanel made the acquaintance of an expatriate aristocrat, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia. They had a romantic interlude, and maintained a close association for many years afterward. By 1919, Chanel was registered as a couturiere and established her maison de couture at 31 rue Cambon.
In 1918, Chanel was able to acquire the entire building at 31 rue Cambon situated in one of the most fashionable districts of Paris. In 1921, she opened what may be considered an early incarnation of the fashion boutique, featuring clothing, hats, and accessories later expanded to offer jewelry and fragrance. By 1927, Chanel owned an expanse of five properties on the rue Cambon, encompassing buildings numbered 23 through 31.
In the spring of 1920 (approximately May), Chanel was introduced to the composer Igor Stravinsky by Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes. During the summer, Chanel discovered that the Stravinsky family was seeking a place to live. She invited them to her new home, "Bel Respiro," in the Paris suburb of Garches until they could find a more suitable residence. They arrived at "Bel Respiro" during the second week of September and remained until May 1921. Chanel also guaranteed the new (1920) Ballets Russes production of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) against financial loss with an anonymous gift to Diaghilev, said to be 300,000 francs.
In 1922, at the Longchamps races, founder of the Paris Galeries Lafayette, introduced Chanel to businessman Pierre Wertheimer. Bader was interested in inaugurating the sale of the Chanel No. 5 fragrance in his department store. In 1924, Chanel made an agreement with the Wertheimer brothers, Pierre and Paul, directors of the eminent perfume and cosmetics house Bourgeois since 1917, creating a corporate entity, "Parfums Chanel." The Wertheimers agreed to provide full financing for production, marketing and distribution of Chanel No. 5. The Wertheimers would receive seventy percent of the profits, and Théophile Bader a twenty percent share. For ten percent of the stock, Chanel licensed her name to Parfums Chanel and removed herself from involvement in all business operations. Displeased with the arrangement, Chanel worked for more than twenty years to gain full control of Parfums Chanel. She proclaimed that Pierre Wertheimer was "the bandit who screwed me".
One of Chanel's longest and enduring associations was with Misia Sert, a notable member of the Parisian, bohemian elite and wife of Spanish painter José-Maria Sert. It is said that theirs was an immediate bond of like souls, and Misia was attracted to Chanel by "her genius, lethal wit, sarcasm and maniacal destructiveness, which intrigued and appalled everyone". Both women, convent bred, maintained a friendship of shared interests, confidences and drug use. By 1935, Chanel had become a habitual drug user, injecting herself with morphine on a daily basis until the end of her life. According to Chandler Burr's The Emperor of Scent, Luca Turin related an apocryphal story in circulation that Chanel was "called Coco because she threw the most fabulous cocaine parties in Paris".
The writer Colette, who moved in the same social circles as Chanel, provided a whimsical description of Chanel at work in her atelier, which appeared in "Prisons et Paradis" (1932). "If every human face bears a resemblance to some animal, then Mademoiselle Chanel is a small black bull. That tuft of curly black hair, the attribute of bull-calves, falls over her brow all the way to the eyelids and dances with every maneuver of her head."
Associations with British aristocrats
In 1923, Vera Bate Lombardi, (born Sarah Gertrude Arkwright), reputedly the illegitimate daughter of the Marquess of Cambridge, afforded Chanel entry into the highest levels of British aristocracy. It was an elite group of associations revolving around such personages as Winston Churchill, aristocrats such as the Duke of Westminster, and royals such as Edward, Prince of Wales. It was in Monte Carlo in 1923, at age forty that Chanel was introduced by Lombardi to the vastly wealthy Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, known to his intimates as "Bendor". The Duke of Westminster lavished Chanel with extravagant jewels, costly art, and a home in London's prestigious Mayfair district. His affair with Chanel lasted ten years.
The Duke, an outspoken anti-Semite, intensified Chanel's inherent antipathy toward Jews and shared with her an expressed homophobia. In 1946, Chanel was quoted by her friend and confidante, Paul Morand:
- "Homosexuals? … I have seen young women ruined by these awful queers: drugs, divorce, scandal. They will use any means to destroy a competitor and to wreak vengeance on a woman. The queers want to be women—but they are lousy women. They are charming!"
Coinciding with her introduction to the Duke, was her introduction, again through Lombardi, to Lombardi's cousin, the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII. The Prince allegedly became smitten with Chanel and pursued her in spite of her involvement with the Duke of Westminster. Gossip had it that he visited Chanel in her apartment and requested that she call him "David", a privilege reserved only for his closest friends and family. Years later, Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue, would insist that "the passionate, focused and fiercely independent Chanel, a virtual tour de force," and the Prince "had a great romantic moment together".
In 1927, the Duke of Westminster gave Chanel a parcel of land he had purchased in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the French Riviera. It was on this site that Chanel built her villa, La Pausa ("restful pause"), hiring the architect Robert Streitz. Streitz's concept for the staircase and patio contained design elements inspired by Aubazine, the orphanage in which Chanel spent her youth. When asked why she did not marry the Duke of Westminster, she is supposed to have stated: "There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel."
Designing for film
It was in 1931 while in Monte Carlo that Chanel made the acquaintance of Samuel Goldwyn. The introduction was made through a mutual friend, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, cousin to the last czar of Russia, Nicolas II. Goldwyn offered Chanel a tantalizing proposition. For the sum of a million dollars (approximately seventy-five million in twenty-first century valuation), he would bring her to Hollywood twice a year to design costumes for MGM stars. Chanel accepted the offer. Accompanying her on her first trip to Hollywood would be her friend Misia Sert.
En route to California from New York traveling in a white train car, which had been luxuriously outfitted specifically for her use, she was interviewed by Colliers magazine in 1932. Chanel said she had agreed to the arrangement to "see what the pictures have to offer me and what I have to offer the pictures." Chanel designed the clothing worn on screen by Gloria Swanson, in Tonight or Never (1931), and for Ina Claire in The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932). Both Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich became private clients.
Her experience with American movie making left Chanel with a dislike for the Hollywood film business and distaste for the Hollywood culture itself, which she denounced as "infantile". Chanel's verdict was that "Hollywood is the capital of bad taste … and it is vulgar." Ultimately, her design aesthetic did not translate well to film. The New Yorker speculated that Chanel had left Hollywood because "they told her her dresses weren't sensational enough. She made a lady look like a lady. Hollywood wants a lady to look like two ladies." Chanel went on to design the costumes for several French films, including Jean Renoir's 1939 film La Règle du jeu, in which she was credited as La Maison Chanel. Chanel introduced the left-wing Renoir to Luchino Visconti, aware that the shy Italian hoped to work in film. Renoir was favorably impressed by Visconti and brought him in to work on his next film project.
Significant liaisons: Reverdy and Iribe
Chanel was the mistress of some of the most influential men of her time, but she never married. She had significant relationships with the poet Pierre Reverdy and the illustrator and designer Paul Iribe. After her romance with Reverdy ended in 1926, they still maintained a friendship that lasted some forty years. It is postulated that the legendary maxims attributed to Chanel and published in periodicals were crafted under the mentorship of Reverdy — a collaborative effort. "A review of her correspondence reveals a complete contradiction between the clumsiness of Chanel the letter writer and the talent of Chanel as a composer of maxims … After correcting the handful of aphorisms that Chanel wrote about her métier, Reverdy added to this collection of “Chanelisms” a series of thoughts of a more general nature, some touching on life and taste, others on allure and love." Her involvement with Iribe was a deep one until his sudden death in 1935. Iribe and Chanel shared the same reactionary politics, Chanel financing Iribe's monthly, ultra-nationalist and anti-republican newsletter, Le Témoin, which fueled an irrational fear of foreigners and preached anti-Semitism. In 1936, one year after Le Témoin stopped publication, Chanel veered to the opposite end of the ideological continuum by financing Pierre Lestringuez's radical left-wing magazine Futur.
Rivalry with Schiaparelli
The Chanel couture was a lucrative business enterprise, by 1935 employing four thousand people. As the 1930s progressed, Chanel's place on the throne of haute couture came under threat. The boyish look and the short skirts of the 1920s flapper seemed to disappear overnight. Chanel's designs for film stars in Hollywood had met with failure and had not aggrandized her reputation as expected. More significantly, Chanel's star had been eclipsed by her premier rival, the designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli's innovative design, replete with playful references to Surrealism was garnering critical acclaim and generating enthusiasm in the fashion world. Feeling she was losing her avant-garde edge, Chanel proceeded to collaborate with Jean Cocteau on his theatre piece Oedipe Rex. The costumes she designed were mocked and critically lambasted: "Wrapped in bandages the actors looked like ambulant mummies or victims of some terrible accident."
World War II
In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Chanel closed her shops, maintaining her apartment situated above the couture house at 31 Rue de Cambon. She claimed that it was not a time for fashion and 3,000 female employees lost their jobs. The advent of war had given Chanel the opportunity to retaliate against those workers who, lobbying for fair wages and work hours, had closed her business operation during a general labor strike in France in 1936. In closing her couture house, Chanel made a definitive statement of her political views. Her dislike of Jews, reportedly inculcated by her convent years and sharpened by her association with society elites, had solidified her beliefs. She shared with most of her circle the conviction that Jews were a Bolshevik threat to Europe. During the German occupation Chanel resided at the Hotel Ritz, which was also noteworthy for being the preferred place of residence for upper echelon German military staff. Her romantic liaison with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer who had been an operative in military intelligence since 1920, facilitated her arrangement to reside at the Ritz.
Battle for control of Parfums Chanel
World War II, specifically the Nazi seizure of all Jewish-owned property and business enterprises, provided Chanel with the opportunity to gain the full monetary fortune generated by Parfums Chanel and its most profitable product, Chanel No. 5. The directors of Parfums Chanel, the Wertheimers, were Jewish, and Chanel used her position as an "Aryan" to petition German officials to legalize her claim to sole ownership.
- On 5 May 1941, she wrote to the government administrator charged with ruling on the disposition of Jewish financial assets. Her grounds for proprietary ownership were based on the claim that Parfums Chanel "is still the property of Jews" and had been legally "abandoned" by the owners.
"I have," she wrote, "an indisputable right of priority … the profits that I have received from my creations since the foundation of this business … are disproportionate … [and] you can help to repair in part the prejudices I have suffered in the course of these seventeen years."
Chanel was not aware that the Wertheimers, anticipating the forthcoming Nazi mandates against Jews had, in May 1940, legally turned control of Parfums Chanel over to a Christian, French businessman and industrialist Felix Amiot. At war's end, Amiot turned "Parfums Chanel" back into the hands of the Wertheimers.
During the period directly following the end of World War II, the business world watched with interest and some apprehension the ongoing legal wrestle for control of Parfums Chanel. Interested parties in the proceedings were cognizant that Chanel's Nazi affiliations during wartime, if made public knowledge, would seriously threaten the reputation and status of the Chanel brand. Forbes magazine summarized the dilemma faced by the Wertheimers: [it is Pierre Wertheimer's worry] how "a legal fight might illuminate Chanel's wartime activities and wreck her image—and his business."
Ultimately, the Wertheimers and Chanel came to a mutual accommodation, renegotiating the original 1924 contract. On 17 May 1947, Chanel received wartime profits from the sale of Chanel No. 5, in an amount equivalent to some nine million dollars in twenty-first century valuation. Further, her future share would be two percent of all Chanel No. 5 sales worldwide. The financial benefit to her would be enormous. Her earnings would be in the vicinity of twenty-five million dollars a year, making her at the time one of the richest women in the world. In addition, Pierre Wertheimer agreed to an unusual stipulation proposed by Chanel herself. Wertheimer agreed to pay all of Chanel's living expenses—from the trivial to the large — for the rest of her life.
Activity as Nazi agent
Declassified, archival documents unearthed by Hal Vaughan reveal that the French Préfecture de Police had a document on Chanel in which she was described as "Couturier and perfumer. Pseudonym: Westminster. Agent reference: F 7124. Signalled as suspect in the file" (Pseudonyme: Westminster. Indicatif d'agent: F 7124. Signalée comme suspecte au fichier). For Vaughan, this was a piece of revelatory information linking Chanel to German intelligence operations. Anti-Nazi activist Serge Klarsfeld thus declared that "It is not because Chanel had a spy number that she was necessarily personally implicated. Some informers had numbers without being aware of it." ("Ce n'est pas parce Coco Chanel avait un numéro d'espion qu'elle était nécessairement impliquée personnellement. Certains indicateurs avaient des numéros sans le savoir").
Vaughan establishes that Chanel committed herself to the German cause as early as 1941 and worked for General Walter Schellenberg, chief of SS intelligence. At the end of the war, Schellenberg was tried by the Nuremberg Military Tribunal, and sentenced to six years' imprisonment for war crimes. He was released in 1951 owing to incurable liver disease and took refuge in Italy. Chanel paid for Schellenberg's medical care and living expenses, financially supported his wife and family and paid for Schellenberg's funeral upon his death in 1952.
In 1943, Chanel traveled to Berlin with Dinklage to meet with SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler to formulate strategy. In late 1943 or early 1944, Chanel and her SS master, Schellenberg, devised a plan to press Britain to end hostilities with Germany. When interrogated by British intelligence at war's end, Schellenberg maintained that Chanel was "a person who knew Churchill sufficiently to undertake political negotiations with him". For this mission, named Operation Modellhut ("Model Hat"), they recruited Vera Bate Lombardi. Count Joseph von Ledebur-Wicheln, a Nazi agent who defected to the British Secret Service in 1944, recalled a meeting he had with Dinklage in early 1943. Dinklage proposed an inducement that would tantalize Chanel. He informed von Ledebur that Chanel's participation in the operation would be ensured if Lombardi was included: "The Abwehr had first to bring to France a young Italian woman [Lombardi] Coco Chanel was attached to because of her lesbian vices…" Unaware of the machinations of Schellenberg and her old friend Chanel, Lombardi played the part of their unwitting dupe, led to believe that the forthcoming journey to Spain would be a business trip exploring the possibilities of establishing the Chanel couture in Madrid. Lombardi's role was to act as intermediary, delivering a letter penned by Chanel to Winston Churchill, and forwarded to him via the British embassy in Madrid. Schellenberg's SS liaison officer, Captain Walter Kutschmann, acted as bagman, "told to deliver a large sum of money to Chanel in Madrid". Ultimately, the mission proved a failure. British intelligence files reveal that all collapsed, as Lombardi, on arrival, proceeded to denounce Chanel and others as Nazi spies.
Protection from prosecution
In September 1944, Chanel was called in to be interrogated by the Free French Purge Committee, the épuration. The committee, which had no documented evidence of her collaboration activity, was obliged to release her. According to Chanel's grand-niece, Gabrielle Palasse Labrunie, when Chanel returned home she said, "Churchill had me freed".
A previously unpublished interview exists dating from September, 1944 when Malcolm Muggeridge, then an intelligence agent with the British MI6, interviewed Chanel after her appearance before the Free French investigators. Muggeridge pointedly questioned Chanel about her allegiances and wartime activities. As to her feelings of being the subject of a recent investigation of collaborators, Chanel had this to say of her interrogators: "It is odd how my feelings have evolved. At first, their conduct incensed me. Now, I feel almost sorry for those ruffians. One should refrain from contempt for the baser specimens of humanity…"
The extent of Winston Churchill's intervention became a subject of gossip and speculation. It was supposedly feared that if Chanel were ever made to testify at trial, the pro-Nazi sympathies and activities of top-level British officials, members of the society elite and those of the royal family itself would be exposed. Some claim that Churchill instructed Duff Cooper, British ambassador to the French provisional government, to protect Chanel.
Finally induced to appear in Paris before investigators in 1949, Chanel left her retreat in Switzerland to confront testimony given against her at the war crime trial of Baron Louis de Vaufreland, a French traitor and highly placed German intelligence agent. Chanel denied all accusations brought against her. She offered the presiding judge, Leclercq, a character reference: "I could arrange for a declaration to come from Mr. Duff Cooper."
Chanel's friend and biographer Marcel Haedrich provided a telling estimation of her wartime interaction with the Nazi regime: "If one took seriously the few disclosures that Mademoiselle Chanel allowed herself to make about those black years of the occupation, one's teeth would be set on edge."
Vaughan's disclosure of the contents of recently de-classified military intelligence documents, and the subsequent controversy generated soon after the book's publication in August 2011, prompted The House of Chanel to issue a statement, portions of which appeared in myriad media outlets. Chanel corporate "refuted the claim" (of espionage), while admitting that company officials had read only media excerpts of the book.
"What's certain is that she had a relationship with a German aristocrat during the War. Clearly it wasn't the best period to have a love story with a German even if Baron von Dincklage was English by his mother and she (Chanel) knew him before the War," the Chanel group said in a statement.
In an interview given to the Associated Press, author Vaughan explains the trajectory of his research. "I was looking for something else and I come across this document saying 'Chanel is a Nazi agent'…Then I really started hunting through all of the archives, in the United States, in London, in Berlin and in Rome and I come across not one, but 20, 30, 40 absolutely solid archival materials on Chanel and her lover, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, who was a professional Abwehr spy." Vaughan also addressed the discomfort many felt with the revelations provided in his book: "A lot of people in this world don't want the iconic figure of Gabrielle Coco Chanel, one of France's great cultural idols, destroyed. This is definitely something that a lot of people would have preferred to put aside, to forget, to just go on selling Chanel scarves and jewelry."
Post-war life and career
In 1945, Chanel moved to Switzerland, eventually returning to Paris in 1954. In 1953 she sold her villa La Pausa on the French Riviera to the publisher and translator Emery Reves. Five rooms from La Pausa have been replicated at the Dallas Museum of Art, to house the Reves's art collection as well as pieces of furniture belonging to Chanel.
Unlike the pre-war era, when women reigned as the premier couturiers, the success of Christian Dior's "New Look" in 1947 brought to prominence a cadre of male designers—Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Robert Piguet, Jacques Fath. Chanel was convinced that women would ultimately rebel against the aesthetic favored by the male couturiers, what she called "illogical" design—the "waist cinchers, padded bras, heavy skirts, and stiffened jackets". Now over seventy years old, after a fifteen-year absence, she felt the time was right for her to re-enter the fashion world. The re-establishment of her couture house in 1954 was fully financed by Chanel's old nemesis in the perfume battle, Pierre Wertheimer. Her new collection was not received well by Parisians who felt her reputation had been tainted by her wartime association with the Nazis. However, her return to couture was applauded by the British and Americans, who became her faithful customers.
According to Edmonde Charles-Roux, Chanel had become tyrannic and extremely lonely. In her last years she was sometimes accompanied by Jacques Chazot and her confidante Lilou Marquand. A faithful friend was also the Brazilian Aimée de Heeren who lived in Paris four months a year at the nearby Hotel Meurice. The former rivals shared happy souvenirs of times with the Duke of Westminster and they used to walk together around central Paris.
As 1971 began, Chanel was 87 years old, tired, and ailing, but nonetheless stuck to her usual routine of preparing the spring catalog. She had gone for a long drive the afternoon of Saturday January 9, soon after feeling ill, she went to bed early. She died on Sunday, January 10, 1971 at the Hotel Ritz where she had resided for more than 30 years. Her funeral was held at the Église de la Madeleine; her fashion models occupied the first seats during the ceremony and her coffin was covered with white flowers – camellias, gardenias, orchids, azaleas and a few red roses.
Legacy as designer
As early as 1915, Harper's Bazaar raved over Chanel's designs: "The woman who hasn't at least one Chanel is hopelessly out of fashion … This season the name Chanel is on the lips of every buyer." Chanel's ascendancy was the official deathblow to the corseted female silhouette. The frills, fuss, and constraints endured by earlier generations of women were now passé; under her influence—gone were the "aigrettes, long hair, hobble skirts". Her design aesthetic redefined the fashionable woman for the post WWI era. The Chanel trademark was a look of youthful ease, a liberated physicality, and unencumbered sportive confidence.
Chanel's philosophy was to emphasize understated elegance through her clothing. Her popularity thrived in the 1920s, because of innovative designs. Chanel's own look itself was as different and new as her creations. Instead of the usual pale-skinned, long-haired and full-bodied women preferred at the time, Chanel had a boyish figure, short cropped hair, and tanned skin. She had a distinct type of beauty that the world came to embrace.
The horse culture and penchant for hunting so passionately pursued by the elites, especially the British, fired Chanel's imagination. Her own enthusiastic indulgence in the sporting life led to clothing designs informed by those activities. From her excursions on water with the yachting world, she appropriated the clothing associated with nautical pursuits: the horizontal striped shirt, bell-bottom pants, crewneck sweaters, and espadrille shoes—all traditionally worn by sailors and fishermen.
Chanel's initial triumph was the innovative use of jersey fabric, a machine knit material manufactured for her by the firm Rodier, and traditionally relegated to the manufacture of undergarments. Chanel's early wool jersey traveling suit consisted of a cardigan jacket, and pleated skirt, paired with a low-belted pullover top. This ensemble, worn with low-heeled shoes, became the casual look in expensive women's wear. Prior to this, jersey tended to only be used in hosiery and for tennis, golf and beachwear. It was too "ordinary" to be used in couture and its weave was difficult to handle. Chanel's introduction of jersey to high-fashion worked well for two reasons. First, the war had caused a shortage of other materials and second, women started to desire more simple and practical clothes. Her fluid jersey suits and dresses were created for practicality and allowed free movement. This was greatly appreciated at the time because women were working for the war effort as nurses, in civil service and in factories. Their work involved physical activity and they had to ride trains, buses and bicycles to get to work. They desired outfits that did not give away easily and could be put on without the help of servants.
Designers such as Paul Poiret and Fortuny introduced ethnic references into haute couture in the 1900s and early 1910s. Chanel continued this trend with Slav-inspired designs in the early 1920s. The beading and embroidery on her garments at this time was exclusively executed by Kitmir, an embroidery house founded by an exiled Russian aristocrat, the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, the sister of her erstwhile lover, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich. Kitmir's fusion of oriental stitching with stylised folk motifs was highlighted in Chanel's early collections. One 1922 evening dress came with a matching embroidered 'babushka' headscarf. In addition to the headscarf, Chanel clothing from this period featured square-neck, long belted blouses alluding to Russian muzhiks (peasant) attire known as the roubachka. Evening designs were often embroidered with sparkling crystal and black jet embroidery.
The Chanel Suit
The Chanel tweed suit was built for comfort and practicality. It consisted of a jacket and skirt in a matching Scottish tweed and a blouse and jacket lining in jersey or a silk crepe. The jacket was piping and gold buttons. The tweed she used was supple and light. She did not stiffen the material or use shoulder pads. She also cut the jackets on the straight grain, without adding bust darts. This allowed for quick and easy movement. She designed the neckline to leave the neck comfortably free and also added pockets that could actually hold things. On most other suits, pockets were just for show. For a higher level of comfort, the skirt had a grosgrain across the hips, instead of a belt. More importantly, meticulous attention was placed on detail during fittings. Measurements were taken in a standing position with arms folded at shoulder height. She also conducted crash tests with mannequins where they would walk around, hop on a platform as if they were stepping on an imaginary bus, and then bend over as if they were getting into a sports car. She wanted to make sure women could do all of these things while wearing her suit, without exposing unwanted parts of their body that might catch the eyes of men. Each customer could get repeated adjustments until the suit was comfortable enough for her to perform her daily activities with comfort and ease.
The camellia had an established association with Alexandre Dumas's literary work, "La Dame aux Camélias" (''The Lady of the Camellias"). Its heroine and her story had resonated for Chanel since her youth. The flower itself had become identified with the courtesan who would wear a camellia to advertise her availability. The camellia came to be identified with The House of Chanel, making its first appearance as a decorative element on a white-trimmed black suit in 1933.
The Little Black Dress
After the jersey suit, the concept of the little black dress is often cited as a Chanel contribution to the fashion lexicon and as a type of clothing that is still worn to this day. Its first incarnation was executed in thin silk, crèpe de chine, and had long sleeves. Chanel started making little black dresses in wool or chenille for the day and in satin, crepe or velvet for the evening. The dress was fashionable, yet comfortable and practical because it was stripped of all excess. In 1926, the American edition of Vogue highlighted such a Chanel dress, dubbing it the garçonne (little boy look). They predicted it would "become sort of a uniform for all women of taste", embodying a standardized aesthetic, which the magazine likened to the democratic appeal of the ubiquitous black Ford automobile. Its spare look generated widespread criticism from male journalists who complained: "no more bosom, no more stomach, no more rump…Feminine fashion of this moment in the 20th century will be baptized lop off everything." The popularity of the little black dress can be attributed to the timing at which it was introduced. The 1930s brought in the Great Depression Era during which women desired affordable fashion. Chanel quoted, “Thanks to me they (non-wealthy) can walk around like millionaires.”
Chanel introduced a line of jewelry that was a conceptual innovation in design and materials incorporating both simulated and fine gem stones. This was revolutionary in an era when jewelry was strictly categorized into either fine or costume jewelry. Her inspirations were global often sourcing the design traditions of the Orient and Egypt. Wealthy clients who did not wish to display their costly jewelry in public were now afforded the option of wearing Chanel creations which effectively impressed.
In 1933, designer Paul Iribe collaborated with Chanel in the creation of extravagant jewelry pieces commissioned by the International Guild of Diamond Merchants. The collection, executed exclusively in diamonds and platinum, was exhibited for public viewing and drew a large audience; some three thousand attendees were recorded in a one-month period.
As an antidote for vrais bijoux en toc, the obsession with costly, fine jewels, Chanel turned unenviable costume jewelry into a coveted accessory—especially when worn in excess displays, as did Chanel herself. Originally inspired by the opulent, costly jewels and pearls gifted to her by her aristocratic lovers, Chanel raided her own jewel vault and partnered with Duke Fulco di Verdura to launch a House of Chanel jewelry line. A white enameled cuff featuring a jeweled Maltese cross was Chanel's personal favourite and has become an iconic piece representative of the Verdura Chanel collaboration. The fashionable and wealthy loved the creations and made it wildly successful. Ever the oracle for the modern, society elite, Chanel put forth her own disingenuous PR statement delivered in the inevitable dictatorial manner: "It's disgusting to walk around with millions around the neck because one happens to be rich. I only like fake jewellery … because it's provocative."
The Chanel bag
Identifying a need to liberate women's hands from the encumbrance of a hand held bag, Chanel conceived of a handbag that would accomplish this stylishly. Christened the "2.55" (named after the date of the bag's creation: February 1955), its design, as with much of her creative inspiration, was informed by her convent days and her love of the sporting world.
The original version was constructed of jersey or leather, the outside featuring a hand-stitched quilted design influenced by the jackets worn by jockeys. The chain strap was a nod to her orphanage years, reminiscent to Chanel of the abbey caretakers who wore such waist chains to hold keys. The burgundy red uniform worn by the convent girls was transmuted into the bag's interior lining.
The bag design went through a reincarnation in the 1980s when it was updated by Karl Lagerfeld. Known as the Classic Flap, the bag retained its original classic shape, with the clasp and chain strap differing from its initial form. Lagerfeld worked the House of Chanel logo, "CC" into the rectangular twist lock and wove leather through the shoulder chain.
In an outdoor environment of turf and sea, Chanel took in the sun, making suntans not only acceptable, but a symbol denoting a life of privilege and leisure. Historically, identifiable exposure to the sun had been the mark of those unfortunate laborers doomed to a life of unremitting, unsheltered toil. "A milky skin seemed a sure sign of aristocracy." By the mid-1920s, women could be seen lounging on the beach without a hat to shield them from the sun's rays. The Chanel influence made sun bathing fashionable.
In popular culture
The co-produced (Italy, France and United Kingdom) movie Coco Chanel debuted on 13 September 2008 on Lifetime Television in the United States, starring Shirley MacLaine as a 70-year-old Chanel. Directed by Christian Duguay, the film also starred Barbora Bobuľová as the young Chanel, Olivier Sitruk as Boy Capel, and Malcolm McDowell. The movie substantially rewrote Chanel's personal history, such as its portrayal of her status as a professional mistress as instead a series of "love stories", and glossing over both her Nazi collaboration and her use of British royal connections to avoid post-war trial as a collaborator.
The film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, directed by Jan Kounen and starring Anna Mouglalis and Mads Mikkelsen, concerns the purported affair between Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. The film is based on the 2002 novel Coco & Igor by Chris Greenhalgh, and was chosen to close the Cannes Film Festival of 2009.
Coco & Igor is a novel, written by Chris Greenhalgh, which depicts the affair between Chanel and Igor Stravinsky and the creative achievements that this affair inspired. The novel was first published in 2003.
In 2008, a children's book entitled Different like Coco was published. It depicted the humble childhood of Coco Chanel and chronicled how she made drastic changes to the fashion industry.
The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World's Most Elegant Woman is a novel written by Karen Karbo. Published in 2009, it chronicles the humble beginnings and legendary achievements of Coco Chanel while providing insight and advice on everything from embracing the moment to living life on your own terms.
The Broadway musical Coco, music by André Previn, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, opened 18 December 1969 and closed 3 October 1970. It is set in 1953–1954 at the time that Chanel was reestablishing her couture house. Chanel was played by Katharine Hepburn for the first eight months, and by Danielle Darrieux for the rest of its run.
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Immersing herself in her work, Gabrielle launched her first Chanel suit. A sailor blouse in tricot material over an open necked shirt and a skirt which was straight but loose enough to walk in and just showing the feet. A plain straw hat completed the outfit, a combination that she had been wearing for some time, but which everyone now wanted to wear as a change from the figure hugging fashion of the day. At the outbreak of war in 1914 Deauville became deserted as everyone rushed back home. Capel, ever the businessman, persuaded Gabrielle to stay. His hunch was correct as, on returning to the resort having lost their clothes in the war, customers found that Chanel was the only shop left open. Times were changing. The society ladies decided to go bathing, dressed in bathing costumes designed by Chanel, with wide, knee length bloomers.
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The memorial consists of a cross, raised on three steps and railed around, and bears the inscription "A la mémoire du capitaine Arthur Capel, légion d'Honneur de l'armée britane, mort accidentellement en cet endroit le 22 décembre 1919". Allegedly it was Chanel who had it placed there.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Coco Chanel.|
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- Official Site of Chanel
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- Lisa Chaney on Coco Chanel on YouTube
- Coco Chanel 1969 interview on YouTube
- Interactive timeline of couture houses and couturier biographies Victoria and Albert Museum