Chanel, Coco (1883–1971)

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Chanel, Coco (1883–1971)

French fashion innovator, patron of the arts, entrepreneur, and creator of the little black dress and the Chanel suit. Name variations: Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel. Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France; died on January 10, 1971, in Paris, France; daughter of Albert Chanel and Jeanne (Devolle) Chanel; attended Aubazine Orphanage and Notre Dame Finishing School, Moulins; never married; no children.

Raised by nuns (1895–1901); employed as a shop assistant, seamstress, and music-hall performer,

(1901–06); lived with Étienne Balsan at Royallieu (1906–09); moved to Paris (1909); met Arthur Capel (1909); opened shop in Deauville (1913); introduced casual sports wear; opened fashion house, Biarritz, (1915); created the jersey dress; met Pablo Picasso (1917); reimbursed Arthur Capel (1918); worked on ballets with Sergi Diaghilev and Pablo Picasso; introduced Chanel no. 5 perfume (1921); entertained a romance with Grand Duke Dimitri (1922–24); had a relationship with Duke of Westminster (1924–30); created the little black dress (1926); accepted contract from Samuel Goldwyn (1930); closed House of Chanel (1939); had a relationship with Hans Gunther Spatz (1940–50); arrested in Paris (1946); moved to Switzerland (1946); made fashion comeback (1954); introduced the Chanel suit (1956); inspired Broadway musical Coco (1969).

Because her father Albert Chanel was an itinerant merchant, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was born in a hospice in Saumur, a remote town in southwestern France, on August 19, 1883. Over one year later, in November 1884, her parents married. When her mother Jeanne Devolle Chanel died at age 32, in February 1895, leaving behind five children, Gabrielle was 11. Her father soon abandoned his young family, and Gabrielle never saw him again. For the next six years, Albert's daughters lived in a bleak orphanage at Aubazine. In later years, Gabrielle never spoke of this period of her life.

As an adolescent, she was enthralled by the novels of Pierre Decourcelle, which she would smuggle into the orphanage. The writer's heroines were always intelligent and independent, with a flair for fashion and a wardrobe to match. At 18, she and her sister Julie Chanel were sent to a finishing school in Moulins. After graduation, Gabrielle was employed as a shop assistant, a seamstress, and a music-hall performer, where she gained her lifelong nickname from the refrain of a popular song: "I've lost my poor Coco. Coco, my lovable dog."

Coco blossomed into an attractive young woman with many admirers. One was Étienne Balsan, a former army officer and horse breeder. In 1906, he invited her to live at Royallieu, his estate near Paris. At age 23, happy to escape the past and the provinces, she gladly accepted. By age 25, Chanel was familiar with the charms of luxury and leisure. She often took long rides in the forest of Compiègne and dressed with unfailing instinct for fashion. Among the regular visitors to Royallieu were the courtesan Emilienne d'Alençon and the actress Gabrielle Dorziat , both of whom later became her clients. But Chanel soon grew tried of the idle pleasures of Royallieu, and in 1909 Balsan lent her his pied-a-terre in Paris. After she began to buy hats in Paris shops and remodel them according to her minimalist tastes, what began as a hobby mushroomed into a business.

It was during her first stay in Paris that she met Arthur Capel, an English friend of Balsan, who became her financier and lover. "He had a very strong personality," she recalled years later, "and was an ardent and concentrated man; he made me what I am, developed what was unique in me, to the exclusion of the rest." Throughout her life, Capel remained one of her few true loves.

On rue Cambon, Chanel opened a small shop; soon, the names rue Cambon and Chanel became synonymous. Her success was so rapid that by 1910 famous actresses and celebrities were often photographed donning her headgear. In 1913, Coco and Arthur Capel vacationed at Deauville, where he encouraged her to open a boutique. With her reputation as a milliner firmly established, she added a line of accessories, as well as beachwear and sports clothes of her own design. The clothes were casual, comfortable, and classic, and the Baroness Mathilde de Rothschild became a client, setting a trend for others to follow.

With the outbreak of World War I, the coastal resort was soon deserted by fashionable society, but Coco refused to panic. Soon, she was doing a brisk trade in outfitting newly arrived nurses, as well as returning wealthy clients who had fled the French capital in the face of a German advance. A year later, Coco and Arthur moved on to Biarritz, a fashionable resort near the Spanish border. There, she opened her first maison de couture, complete with its own dressmakers and high fashion collections, which she would operate until 1922. Nearby Spain offered a clientele of wealthy aristocrats, and, by 1918, Chanel had paid off her debt to Capel and was financially independent. Shortly afterward, Capel died in an automobile accident on the Côte d'Azur.

With the shortage of textiles caused by the war and an increasing demand for practical women's fashions, Chanel adapted the jersey, a style of sweater originally worn by the mariners of the Channel islands, into a dress, creating a fashion revolution. "In inventing the jersey, I liberated the body, I eliminated the waistline," she noted, "and created a new silhouette. … To the great indignation of couturiers, I shortened dresses." Along with social emancipation, the war created a demand for functional simplicity that extended into the postwar era.

In May 1917, Misia Sert introduced Chanel into French high society, and Coco became an instant success. "She seemed to have an infinite grace," recalled the socialite. Pablo Picasso, who also met Chanel in 1917, claimed she had more good sense than any other woman he had ever known. In turn, Chanel was mesmerized by Picasso's intensity: "He was wicked. He fascinated me the way a hawk would; he filled me with a terrible fear. I would feel it when he came in: something would curl up inside me: he'd arrived. I couldn't see him yet but already I knew he was in the room." The two would collaborate on several theater and ballet projects. Chanel became a patron of the Paris art scene, financing Les Ballets Russes, the company of Sergi Diaghilev, as well as designing costumes. She lent Igor Stravinsky her villa in 1920, so that he could finish his Concertina for String Quartet and write his symphonies for wind instruments. Stravinsky gave her his most treasured possession as a gift, a Russian icon that Chanel kept on her night-table until the end of her life.

She met Ernest Beaux, one of the most celebrated perfumers of his generation. Many great perfume houses had opened their doors in Paris during the late 18th century. Beaux presented Chanel with a series of perfume samples made of natural ingredients, and she selected one. On May 5, 1921, the same day she unveiled a new collection, her perfume went on sale. Chanel no. 5 was to become world famous.

The Roaring '20s marked a period of liberalization in the lifestyles of women. Chanel created dresses that were synonymous with luxury and simplicity. She never worked from sketches, but on models, using scissors and needles to create her fashions. The youthful, slender look of Chanel's "little black dress" became the uniform of a generation, with its geometric austerity and its functionality. "Women think of all colors except the absence of color," she commented. "Black has it all."

Before World War I, Chanel had met the Grand Duke Dimitri (Romanov), a tall and handsome member of the Russian nobility, who was a co-conspirator in the murder of the politically powerful monk Rasputin. In 1922, Chanel and the grand duke became seriously involved, and she supported him financially. In return, he gave her the Romanov pearls, which she copied, legitimizing the wearing of false pearls in the world of high fashion.

The Duke of Westminster, the richest man in England, was also sincerely in love with Coco; their affair lasted from 1924 to 1930. She accompanied him on his yachts, visited his many houses, and he showered her with flowers and jewelry. But Chanel, bored with the life of the idle rich, continued to turn down his marriage proposals. Work was something she could not do without. Her visits to Britain inspired many of her fashion ideas. "I had the tweeds brought over from Scotland," she said; "homespuns overthrew the crepes and muslins."

In the summer of 1930, Chanel accepted a contract from Sam Goldwyn, the Hollywood magnate, to design movie wardrobes for the stars of his studio. Coco soon saw through the glitter and pretence of Hollywood and dropped the contract, but among the clients she acquired during her American sojourn were Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo . Gloria Swanson wore her creations in the film Tonight or Never.

Despite the worldwide Great Depression and the rise of Nazism in Germany, Chanel continued her brilliant career. In 1933, she turned 50, still dictating fashion. "Be a caterpillar by day and a butterfly at night," she said. "There is nothing more comfortable than a caterpillar and nothing more made for love than a butterfly. We need dresses that crawl and dresses that fly." Chanel excelled in the use of transparent materials for evening gowns—tulle, net, muslin—all in her favorite colors: white, black, pink, and navy blue.

When war was declared on September 3, 1939, Coco closed her fashion house, leaving open only the perfume boutique, which sold all of its stock of Chanel no. 5 to German soldiers wishing to impress their sweethearts back home. After a brief sojourn in the south, she returned to Paris, where she lived out the war in seclusion. During the German occupation, she became involved with Hans Spatz, a German diplomat and suspected Gestapo agent. With the liberation of Paris, popular indignation among the public and the press was overwhelming. Chanel was openly labeled as a collaborator and arrested after two weeks but not charged. In 1946, she and Spatz moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, becoming neighbors of Charlie Chaplin.

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Fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportion.

Coco Chanel

In 1947, Christian Dior's "New Look" swept Paris, but Chanel rejected it as nostalgic. In 1950, Spatz faded from her life, and in 1953 she secretly began to plan her return. Chanel was assured of the support of the Wertheimer brothers, who owned the rights to Chanel no. 5. Postwar America had also developed a large and growing ready-to-wear market and a mechanized fashion industry that was geared to mass production, which Coco eyed with interest.

On February 5, 1954, at age 70, Chanel unveiled her new collection, which the fashion critics dismissed as dated. Undeterred, Chanel had the support of the American press, and by 1956 she was back in designing form. Her tailored wool suit, henceforth associated with her name, became the universal success that her "little black dress" had enjoyed. "These post-war suits of Chanel were designed God knows when," wrote the editor of Vogue years later, "but the tailoring, the line, the shoulders, the underarms, the jupe—never too short, never making a fool of a woman when she sits down—is even today the right thing to wear." When combined with American mass production techniques, Coco captured the U.S. and European markets. Along with her tailored suits and evening gowns, she created short, airy dresses, worn without a hat, for cocktail or garden parties.

By 1958, the women's weekly Elle was declaring that "all the movie people want to be dressed by Chanel." Coco designed the flowing costumes for Louis Malle's film The Lovers (1958); the clothes worn by Delphine Seyrig in The Last Year at Marienbad (1961); and the costumes of Romy Schneider in Luchino Visconti's film, Boccaccio '70 (1962).

The last years of Chanel's life saw her at the peak of her fame. By 1968, the House of Chanel payroll totalled 400 employees; her celebrated clientele included Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve , and Elizabeth Taylor ; and Time Magazine estimated that Coco's fashion empire, including perfume, was worth $160 million a year. A Broadway musical appeared in 1969 entitled "Coco," starring Katharine Hepburn . In the meantime, Chanel continued policing fashion, lashing out at the Mao suits and miniskirts of the era. "Do you think that a woman looks any younger because she shows her knees and her thighs? It's gaudy and it's indecent; two things I hate." The spring collection of 1971, her last, stuck to classic styling, and was heralded by the critics as a definitive success.

In later years, Coco Chanel was a lonely figure, sustained by her work. She spoke of retirement, though never seriously, but work became increasingly difficult in her 80s, because of arthritis. Asked by the press why she never married, she replied: "The two men I loved never understood. They were rich, and never realized that a woman, even a rich woman, wants to do things. I would never be able to abandon the House of Chanel. It was my child." When she died on January 10, 1971, the funeral, held at the church of the Madeleine in Paris, brought out the Paris fashion community, as well as artists, socialites, and politicians. Her casket was draped with garlands of roses, gardenias, and orchids.

Coco Chanel created a fashion look for the ages. She ruled the fashion industry for nearly six decades, showing that innovations can be basic, and that casual can be classic. Not just a creative dynamo, Chanel also built a vast business empire. Her heart, however, remained in fashion. She was a woman who refused the traditional role; instead, she defined her role:

I wonder why I went into this profession, and why I played a revolutionary role. It was not to create what pleased me; what I wanted above all was to put out of fashion what did not please me. … I have been the instrument of Fate for a necessary cleaning operation.


Charles-Roux, Edmonde. Chanel. Trans. by Nancy Amphoux. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

Galante, Pierre. Les Années Chanel. Paris: Paris-Match, 1972.

Haedrich, Marcel. Coco Chanel: Her Life, Her Secrets. Trans. by Charles L. Markmann. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1972.

Kenneth, Francis. Coco: The Life and Loves of Gabrielle Chanel. London: Victor Gollancz, 1989.

Millbank, Caroline. Couture: The Great Designers. NY: Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1988.

Steele, Valerie. Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. NY: Oxford University Press, 1988.

suggested reading:

Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. NY: Henry Holt, 1990.

Wallach, Janet. Chanel: Her Style and Her Life. NY: Doubleday, 1998.

related media:

Chanel Solitaire (124 min film), starring Marie Pisier , Timothy Dalton, Rutger Hauer, Karen Black , and Brigitte Fossey , directed by George Kaczender, FR/GB, 1981.

The musical Coco, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Andre Previn, opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on Broadway on December 18, 1969, starring Katharine Hepburn.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada