Her name has graced perfume, clothing, and handbags since the 1920’s. She freed women from the constraints of the corset and popularized a sporty and casual elegance. Because of her, most women have in their closet a little black dress. She is the only fashion designer listed on TIME magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. This feisty gal created an empire and brand that still exists today. You may know of the brand but do you know about the gal?
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Coco Chanel was born in 1883 as Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in a poor house in Saumur, Maine-et-Loire, France.
When Chanel was 12 her mother died of bronchitis, as a result her father sent her brothers out to work and sent her and her sisters to a Catholic foster home at the convent of Aubazine in central France. It was here she learned how to sew. Six years later she got a job as a seamstress.
During the day she was a seamstress and at night she was a cabaret singer. It was at this time she started to be called Coco because she became known for singing some containing the words “coco” like “Ko Ko Ri Ko”. She gave it a serious go but realized her future was not in performing.
While singing at the Moulins Pavillion she met and wealthy textile heir, Balsan. She lived with him for three years and was introduced to the life of high society and self-indulgence. But Balsan wasn’t the only man wanting of her attention. Balsan’s friend Boy Capel was also smitten by her.
Capel was also a wealthy man but English. Their relationship would last 9 years. He was betrothed to (and eventually married) Lady Diana Wyndham. He died in a car accident the year after his marriage. Many years after his death Coco said, “ I lost everything. What followed was not a life of happiness”.
Coco’s First Shops
Either Capel or Balsan (or both) set up Coco an apartment in Pairs and financed her first shop, a hat store. She gained popularity when famous theater actress Gabrielle Dorziat wore one of her hats in a performance.
In 1913 Coco opened a full fledged boutique where she introduced many of her clothing designs. In the days of corsets and layered dresses, Coco’s designs were… pretty daring. Her ideas were based on both fashion, design, elegance and comfort. Her clothing was made from fabrics such as jersey and tricot that was typically saved for men’s undergarments.
It was just after the first world war and there were growing amounts of working women that petticoats and corsets just weren’t cutting for them. They needed something that was more fluid and breathable, but still feminine and fashionable. Coco designed something that nearly all women in our culture now have, known as the “little black dress”.
In 1924, Coco made an agreement with the Wertheimer’s creating a corporate entity, “Parfums Chanel.” When presented with small glass vials containing sample scent compositions numbered 1 to 5 and 20 to 24 for her assessment, she chose the fifth vial and Chanel No 5 was born.
In 1929 Chanel came out with a leather handbag with a strap so that she could be hands free. Implying that she could be active in society just like men and could be hands free while doing so.
Coco enjoyed having wealth and showing it off. But to display your expensive jewelry all the time comes at the risk of someone stealing it. So she collaborated with another designer and created costume jewelry.
The sailor blouse aka the Breton shirt is a classic Chanel which was designed off of shirts typically worn by sailors or fisherman, the Chanel shirt is still widely worn today. Other notable Chanel couture is of course her many hats, jackets, sweaters and more casual clothes for the working woman.
The War Years
She closed her shops saying “it’s not a time for fashion.” Throughout the German occupation of France, Coco stayed at the Hotel Ritz which was also the home of the upper-echelon of German Military staff, including Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage of military intelligence.
This is where her story gets complicated. Some claim documents identify Coco as a Nazi spy. The House of Chanel refutes the claim. Coco denied all accusations of being a spy in 1949. Coco also did have powerful friends on both sides of the war.
Now if that wasn’t enough, she was considered to be anti-semiotic. Thinking Perfumes of Chanel were abandoned because of Jewish property seizures with the German occupation of France, she to wrote Nazi party officials requesting proprietary ownership of the perfume. What she didn’t know is that in 1940, in anticipation of the Nazi mandates, the Wertheimer’s legally turned over the business to a Christian, French business man, who then returned the ownership back to the Wertheimer’s.
It was all dealt with and contracts were renegotiated in 1947. Coco got war time profits, 2% of profits world-wide, and the brother’s agreed to pay for all her living expenses for the rest of her life. This made her one of the richest women in world.
She made a comeback in 1954 funded greatly in part to the Wertheimer’s. Her fashions this time were a much bigger success in Britain and America.
Until 1971 Coco worked on her collections and brand. Now 87 years old and preparing the spring catalog, she went to bed early and died at the Hotel Ritz. Her funeral was in Paris. She is buried in Switzerland.
Kate & Phoebe learned in this episode that the variations of truth are always far more complex that the brand or the icon. Kate and Phoebe dig into many layers of Coco and life and legacy in this week’s episode. Listen Here.
Your Gal Friday is a weekly podcast with supplemental video and article profiling and amazing gal of our galaxy that we can all learn from.
Your Gal Friday also ties into Gal’s Guide school outreach. Gal’s Guide offers a K-University presentations of Women You Didn’t Learn About in School. Showcasing 14-26 amazing gals to classrooms and assemblies, the presentations spotlight these gals where the podcast goes more in depth of your new favorite gals every Friday.
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