Daring Coco Chanel re-invented her name as she re-invented herself to be a daring, free spirit, unencumbered by the usual restrictions of her time. Truly, Coco was ahead of her time, a pioneer in women’s fashion and an inspiration for women worldwide. Coco was like a wave. Single-handedly, she rendered everything current and fashionable out of fashion. Coco was a trendsetter.
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in a poorhouse hospice in Samur, France in 1883. Her mother was a laundress and her father a nomadic salesman of clothing. One could say, she was born into the clothing industry, but certainly at a level far below the Haute Couture houses that would later bear her name.
Coco endured sadness
When Coco was young, her mother died and their father avoiding responsibility sent his sons to work as farm labourers and his three young daughters to a convent orphanage. Coco was 11, Julia, 12 and Antoinette, 8. Promising to visit, he never did.
The sisters lived a dark and frugal life within the walls of the Sacred Heart of Mary Convent of Aubazine. However, one light in the darkness, was the enforced discipline of embroidery, seam-stressing and ironing. Coco and her sisters learnt to sew, which enabled them to leave the orphanage at 18 with a skill to support themselves.
Coco Sings as she Sews
They supplemented this with singing, along with their young aunt, at a concert hall in Moulins in central France. Their acts were the in between fill-ins between the real stars of the cabaret. Coco, then Gabrielle sang a song ‘Who has Seen Coco?’ and so gained the nickname Coco. Like most pet names, it stuck and would become legendary and enable the two entwined letter Cs of her logo.
As pretty young women they attracted attention from the clientele, many wealthy men. Coco became the mistress to textile heir Etienne Balsan and lived at his elegant chateau Royallieu. Her saucy gamin charm also captivated ‘Boy’ Capel and soon she had two wealthy gentleman vying for her attention. While with him, Coco experimented with making hats and soon had a following of fashionable ladies wanting her unique hat designs.
Coco’s First Boutique
‘Boy’ financed her first enterprise as a milliner at 21 rue Chambon in 1910. The address already housed a boutique. Coco was essentially, the resident milliner.
In 1913, ‘Boy’ again helped establish a boutique in the fashionable seaside resort of Deauville. Coco started experimenting with jersey fabric, up till then used to make men’s underwear. The unconventional fabric gave freedom to the female form and was accepted readily.
Coco was a sporty woman who loved the outdoors and enjoyed golf, skiing, riding , yachting and fishing, She wanted her body to be free of clutter and clothing restrictions so designed little sports dresses that shocked others by their brevity and figure-hugging style. Her sister and young aunt modelled the fashions in-store and in the streets.
Coco’s Daring Style is the Rage
Coco repeated her success here with another boutique in classy Biarritz in 1915. Soon she had enough money to repay ‘Boy’ for his generosity. In 1915, she also formulated Chanel No. 5, her signature perfume. It is believed the shape was inspired by ‘Boy’s toiletry bottles as it is unusually chunky compared to conventional perfume bottles.
Coco found happiness with ‘Boy’ Capel for nine years. But he married Diana Wyndham in 1918, for position and died young in a car crash in 1919. The loss of ‘Boy’ shattered Coco. She had hoped to marry him but his rejection of her, and his death put an end to all ideas of marriage. Coco never married. She focused on her career and what a career it was.
Coco forges a Career
It is amazing that Coco achieved such success considering the Great War was raging and women lived surrounded by fear and death. But Coco’s fashions were appealing to the women who had money and position and wanted comfort. In 1918, she opened another boutique, this time a Couture house at 31 rue Chambon. This address is still the premises of Chanel today.
For the next twenty years, Coco’s life reads like a Hollywood script. She mingled and romanced with the rich and famous. The one shadow was the mysterious deaths of her two sisters; two possible suicides. Coco never spoke of her past. She put it all behind her and forged ahead.
A Cloud over Coco
At the outbreak of World War Two, Chanel shut shop and retreated to the Hotel Ritz which was part of Gestapo headquarters. Rumours abounded that Coco was a spy, and she was questioned about her alliances. Churchill intervened and vouched for her, otherwise this cloud over her name could have destroyed her career and legacy. It is suggested that Coco knew secrets of high ranking British and Germans, hence Churchill’s eagerness to intervene.
To avoid scandal, Coco moved to Switzerland in 1945. When she returned to the fashion world in the 1950s, the arena was dominated by male designers like Christian Dior. She achieved a following but the shadow of the war years had dampened enthusiasm for her name. Coco died in 1971 at the Hotel Ritz, her only real home for 30 years.
Daring Coco’s Legacy
Coco’s legacy however is massive. Her influence on fashion gave the death knoll to the corset, frills, fuss and hobble skirts that had constrained women for centuries. Her use of the soft, stretchy jersey gave fluidity to women’s outfits at a time they needed it. WW1 needed women in the workforce to supplement the loss of men to the Front. Women needed bodily freedom to ride bicycles, drive buses and trucks and fabrics that did not need ironing and servants.
In 1923, the Chanel suit was a comfortable and practical outfit made of wool, tailor-made to the wearer and featuring useful pockets. Later, the little black dress, such as worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, would also become a popular Chanel staple for women. Coco later added accessories of jewellery and handbags to her fashion offerings. Soon there was a Chanel item for everywoman.
Chanel and her unique story are showcased in film. The first made was Chanel Solitaire in 1981, then Coco Chanel in 2008 and recently Coco Avant Chanel in 2009. All very enjoyable and inspiring as I hope this article has been!
Photo; Unsplash, Laura Chouette
Joni Scott is an Australian author with two published novels: Whispers through Time and The last Hotel. She co-hosts a women’s blog; https://whisperingencouragement.com/ and has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.