Sunday, 9 January 2011

Remarkable Women: Coco Chanel

The first in a very occasional series where I get to indulge my inner history nerd and write about some of my favourite extraordinary women from history.

Coco Chanel. A universally recognised name and brand, the woman behind the glamorous facade lived a rags to riches fairy tale life. But all fairy tales have a dark side to them and Chanel's life certainly had its share of heartbreak.

There are many grey areas concerning Chanel's life. She was not always too familiar with the truth, preferring to concoct a tissue of fantasies to blur unsavoury parts of her life, or to inflate and perpetuate her own legend.

She was born Gabrielle Chasnel (a clerical error on her birth certificate) on 19 August 1883 to desperately poor parents. One of six children, her father would often vanish and leave her mother in very poor health and with little means to look after her children. Tragically on one of these absences Chanel's mother died when she was 11 years old and the youngest child only 4 years old. When discovered nobody knew how long the children had been existing with their mother's remains in the one room hovel they lived in at the time.

Chanel and her oldest sister were immediately placed by their father in an abbey to be brought up by the nuns, and it is from here that she developed her love for simplicity in clothing and the use of the colours black and white in clothing. They never saw or heard from their father again.

Whilst in the abbey Chanel was taught to be a seamstress and found work with a tailor when she left the care of the nun's at the age of eighteen. At night she and her Aunt (only a couple of years older than Chanel) would go to rowdy music hall events. As a pretty girl she received a lot of male attention and enjoyed singing songs to them. One of these songs was about a lost dog "Qui qu'a vu Coco" and it is this song that gave Chanel her lifelong and celebrated nickname.

At this time, maybe due to her singing, Chanel formed a relationship with an aristocratic playboy and in unclear circumstances she ended up living at his chateau sharing his affections with his mistress, a famous courtesan and actress who ended up as one of Chanel's first clients.

Chanel remained with the playboy for several years during which time she become known for her style of dress. In the early nineteen hundred's the preferred fashion for women involved frills, flounces, bustles and ribbons.

Vintage 1900-1909 French Fashion Image Detail
In complete contrast Chanel preferred simplicity and would often dress in a simple mans white shirt, straw hat and tweed suit. She started making simple boater style straw hats, and soon built up a following for her pared down style promoted by the high profile connections she was already beginning to make.

In 1909 Chanel formed a relationship with 'Boy' Capel, an English playboy, polo player and son of a wealthy industrialist. She always referred to Boy as the love of her life and he was also crucial to her business as the funder and co-founder of her first clothing boutique at the fashionable resort of Deauville in 1912. The boutique was a success from the start as women, tired of the constrictions of corsetry and bulky dresses, continued to covet Chanel's style of hats and clothing. Chanel had by this time also opened a millinery shop in 1910 on Paris's Rue de Cambon, where the company's headquarters and atelier are still based. Chanel subsequently bought several adjacent properties on the road as her success grew. Interestingly it is thought that the interwoven double C which is the Chanel logo refers not to Coco Chanel, but Chanel and Capel.

Chanel's relationship with Boy lasted 10 years during which time he also married an English aristocrat and became a father, however he was killed in a motoring accident in 1919. She was devastated.

Chanel understood the power of celebrity. The celebrities of the time were the aristocrats and glitterati of the Parisian scene whom she courted and was courted by in turn. She became heavily involved with Diaghilev's Ballet Russe who were the sensation of the 20's (Njinski danced for them, Picasso designed the sets for them, Stravinski the music and Chanel the costumes) and this in turn brought her great fame and notoriety.

However without her amazing designing ability she would have been nothing. In the twenties she introduced the 'little black dress' to which we all remain indebted. She was the first to design loose flowing jersey garments for women, and it is entirely down to her that breton tops and wide leg trousers are still as chic an outfit some 90 years on. In addition she was one of the first designers to understand the power of branded fragrance introducing Chanel No. 5 in 1922, followed by many other successful fragrances which provided the cash flow to sustain her business through many future lean years.

Chanel never married or had children, but had many significant love affairs along the way. She was the mistress of Britain's richest man; Bendor (yes really!) The Duke of Westminster for many years in her forties. She was also the lover of Stravinsky for some time, and more shockingly in her fifties, during the Nazi occupation of France, she conducted an affair with a German Officer. After the war other women with German lovers were put on trial for collaboration or had their heads shaved and had to endure being paraded naked through the streets as punishment, however no such allegations about Chanel ever stuck. It has to be said that through her British aristocratic connections she was on first name terms with Churchill, however it is more likely that Chanel never actually did anything anti-French to merit prosecution.

Notwithstanding this she had lost all popularity in France and decided to move to Switzerland in 1945. There she remained until 1954 when she returned to Paris at the age of seventy with a new collection. The French remained ambivalent if not suspicious of her, but she was lauded by the British and Americans who to this day remain faithful customers. Within three years she was at the top of her game, where she remained until her death in 1971 at the age of 88 in her private apartment in the Paris Ritz.

Some quotes from Chanel:

"A dress isn’t right unless the arm lifts easily… Elegance in clothes means freedom to move freely."

"Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. Life shapes the face you have at thirty. But at fifty you get the face you deserve."

"A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous."

"As long as you know men are like children, you know everything!"

"Elegance is not the prerogative of those who have just escaped from adolescence, but of those who have already taken possession of their future."