“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.”
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 a sportive, casual chic as the feminine standard of style in the post-World War I era. A prolific fashion creator, Chanel’s influence extended beyond couture clothing. Her design aesthetic was realised in jewellery, 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.
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 12, her mother died of bronchitis at the age of 32. 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 realised 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 of 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 namedChanel 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 jewellery 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 Septemberand 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.”
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 andblack 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 courtesanwho 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 jewellery that was a conceptual innovation in design and materials incorporating both simulated and fine gem stones. This was revolutionary in an era when jewellery was strictly categorized into either fine or costume jewellery. Her inspirations were global often sourcing the design traditions of the Orient and Egypt. Wealthy clients who did not wish to display their costly jewellery 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 jewellery 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 jewellery 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 jewellery 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
In 1929 Chanel offered a handbag inspired by soldier’s bags which, with its thin shoulder strap, freed the wearer’s hands. Following her comeback, Chanel updated the design in February 1955, creating what would become the “2.55” (named for the date of its creation). Whilst details of the classic bag have been reworked, such as the 1980s update by Karl Lagerfeld where the clasp and lock were redesigned to incorporate the crossed C’s Chanel logo and leather was interlaced through the shoulder chain, the bag has retained its basic form. In 2005, the Chanel firm released an exact replica of the original 1955 bag to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its creation.
The bag’s design, as with much of her creative inspiration, was informed by Chanel’s convent days and her love of the sporting world. The chain used for the strap echoed the chatelaines worn by the caretakers of the orphanage where Chanel grew up, whilst the burgundy lining referenced the convent uniforms. The quilted outside was influenced by the jackets worn by jockeys, whilst at the same time enhancing the bag’s shape and volume.
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.