The Tangled Threads of Coco Chanel
Taylor’d with Style - October 2020
By JeanAnn Taylor
As a “girly girl,” I can’t say I love the boxy fashions of Coco Chanel. But, I can say that I love her fearless spirit. This lady made her life what she wanted it to be. She was at once classy and controversial.
She is an icon who turned the fashion world upside-down. Her mannish fashions with simple lines were avant-garde in the early 1900s. She was an ambitious and opinionated fashion designer who changed the world of fashion forever. Her relationships with men were sometimes simply friendships, and oftentimes much more complicated.
“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”
Her life has been written about many times over in books, online posts, and magazine articles. Deciphering the complex story of Chanel turned out to be quite a task.
From humble beginnings, passionate affairs, and a relationship with the Nazis, here is as accurate an account of her life as I could write.
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in France in August of 1883. Her parents were unmarried until after her first birthday. Her mother worked as a laundrywoman and her father sold haberdashery goods on the street market.
They lived in various places with no stable home life. When she was 12, her mother died and her father dropped her off at an orphanage. While living in this convent, she learned to sew—which turned out to be a rewarding skill. As an adult, her unstable childhood influenced her determination and resolve to never live without money or a home again.
Coco’s career began as a seamstress during the day and cabaret singer at night. The name, “Coco,” is said to have come from a song she sang, Qui qua vu Coco. It is also rumored that she chose Coco for it’s nickname of cocotte, meaning, kept woman. Either way, the name felt right to her and she used it for the rest of her life.
“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.”
Coco embraced her personal style, and enjoyed standing out in a crowd. To this end, she made her own hats and clothes. As they were often very different from the fashions of the day, she gleaned much attention.
In 1906, as a cabaret singer, Coco met many men. Among these was a French textile heir, Etienne Balsan. As fabric and hat-making were two of her passions, Coco was immediately infatuated with a man who could offer her all the money and fabric she could wish for—so she became his mistress.
To keep her content, Balsan set her up with a small millinery shop. This set-up was all fine and good until the day when Coco met a very wealthy Englishman, Boy Capel, (1908). Capel took her everywhere and Coco quickly realized how the wealthy truly lived.
“I only drink champagne on two occasions, when I am in love and when I am not.”
In 1913, Capel gave her a boutique where she began designing and selling women’s garments that were in stark contrast to the current restrictive fashionable clothes. Coco was intrigued by the comfort and simplicity of menswear, and she took much inspiration from Capel’s clothing.
She also insisted on perfect workmanship and the use of high quality material. She began sewing dresses from jersey fabric, which at the time was only used for men’s underwear. Her simple designs were comfortable and practical, yet remained elegant.
They were also scandalous. She designed tight skirts without corsets or petticoats, and even—pants for women. By 1922, her success led her to open The House of Chanel.
Unfortunately, although they appeared to be in love, Capel could not stay faithful and their relationship suffered. Capel married another woman, yet their love affair continued until his death. It is said that Capel was Coco’s only true love.
When he was killed in a car crash in 1919, she was devastated. Since she was his mistress, she was not permitted to officially mourn for him. It was then that she began designing garments with black fabric. Rumor is that she promoted black clothing to make all French women mourn for him.
“If you’re sad, add more lipstick and attack.”
After Capel’s death, Coco focused on her work. As she built her business, there were many suitors interested in meeting—and consorting with —this flirty, witty, intelligent, unpredictable, shrewd, and successful woman.
However, her attraction to them was based on their ability to help her achieve her goals. In 1920, the Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich of Russia was the first. His influence led her to add Russian embroidery to many of her designs.
One of his friends, a perfumer, helped Coco create Chanel No. 5. It was the first perfume made from the fragrance of more than one flower. Coco picked the name because a gypsy once told her that ‘five’ was her lucky number.
Her affair with Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, led her into the world of British aristocracy. As one of the richest men in the world, she lived an extraordinarily elegant life with him. During their ten year romance, (1924-1931) he bought a home for her in London, and gave her a piece of land on the French Riviera, where she built her villa.
On one romantic occasion, he hid a huge emerald in the bottom of a crate of vegetables. He personally delivered the vegetables disguised as a deliveryman. The Duke was the muse for Coco to begin designing with English tweeds.
It was also he who introduced her to Winston Churchill. Churchill considered Coco to be the most intelligent, nice, and strongest woman he had ever dealt with. She believed she would marry the Duke, but due to her age, she could not have children and the Duke was forced to marry a younger woman.
Alone again, Coco dove into her career. During World War II, Nazis occupied Paris and many businesses were forced to close. Coco closed The House of Chanel, but remained in her Hotel Ritz apartment. It was then that she began an affair with a German diplomat and was accused of spying.
She was eventually arrested by the “Committee on Public Morals.” When released, she fled to Switzerland where she lived for the next ten years. It is believed that her friendship with Churchill helped her resolve her grim predicament.
When she returned to Paris in 1954, everything had changed. The new generation only remembered her as the creator of Chanel No. 5. However, she reopened her fashion house and went to work. At 71, she confessed that she was “dying of boredom.”
She was also troubled that Christian Dior was bringing back feminine style elements she had worked to eliminate. At first, her new creations were scorned by the press because they were considered to be repeats of her past designs—and possibly because she had not been forgiven for her behavior during the war.
“Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”
However, although France rejected her, America embraced her. She eventually turned her small fashion house into the largest fashion house in the entire fashion industry. Her designs were not repeats—they were timeless.
Coco Chanel is best known for the “Little Black Dress.” Although she didn’t invent the dress, she catapulted it into fashion fame. She is known for freeing women from corsets and petticoats, for popularizing casual sportswear, and to her chagrin, making women’s pants acceptable.
She believed that women should not wear pants in public as they are unflattering. Her brand is also known for costume jewelry, two-tone shoes, quilted bags, tweed suits—and pockets. Chanel loved pockets.
Coco Chanel, who loved camellias, champagne, and caviar, continued to work until her death at 87 years old. She died alone in her Hotel Ritz apartment. Only three dresses were found in her wardrobe—they were described as “very stylish attires.”