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Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971)

In the fourth instalment of BoF’s fashion history series, we meet the creator of the “little black dress,” who took her cues from a country in mourning. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, the designer doyenne who founded fashion’s most famous house, used her lovers’ money to establish herself and rewrote the rulebook with her mannish collections.
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Colin McDowell

PARIS, France — It would be impossible to dispute the claim that Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel is the most famous designer in history — the reputation outstripping that of rivals such as Dior, Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent, all of whom gave much more to fashion than she did. Her great strength was her ability to read the times and the moods that changed them — and usually do so before anyone else did. She was a true catalyst for fashion change, but not always a very original creator.

Her story has become legendary and at least its basic facts are now part of fashion mythology, even to those who have no special interest in the fashion world. Biographies, memoirs, diaries, films, even a play; her life has been turned inside out for all to enjoy and there is no reason to believe that the flow of words and images devoted to her will diminish in the foreseeable future, any more than that intertwined Cs of the company's logo will ever go out of fashion.

Born in Saumur in a poor house hospice in 1883, Chanel was illegitimate. Her mother died when her daughter was 12, and any fortune teller would have predicted a dark and dreary life of sadness for her from that point. But anyone who could read character and willpower would have known the possibility of a different life path. Even as a young girl, she had beauty, which developed into a coquettish style that entranced men throughout her entire life, thereby enabling her to get whatever she wanted from them.

The facts of her early days are not easily verifiable. She grew up in a time — the last years of the 19th century — and in a place — rural France — when the lives of the poor were rarely fully documented. So, facts are scarce and, throughout her life, Chanel took advantage of this. She was good at self-mythologizing, and there was much to mythologise. As far as we know, she was christened Gabrielle and legitimised when her parents married a year after her birthday. She was one of five children and the family lived in abject poverty. When his wife died of tuberculosis, the father, an indigent pedlar, dumped his three daughters in the grounds of an orphanage and disappeared. Life in a strict catholic institution run by sadistic nuns, determined to bring all their charge to heel, had no such effect on Chanel except to make her rebel against all forms of discipline and fight to have her own way. They failed to break her spirit but certainly hardened her resolve to take control of her life as soon as she could.

Liberation came when Chanel went to Moulins to work as a seamstress and eked out a wage by singing in a bar, where she was nicknamed Coco after a song she sang. She was popular, not least because she had developed into a dramatically beautiful young woman. Her professional life began in 1906 when she became the mistress to a French textile heir and racehorse owner. fabric (and how she could use it) and horses were two of her life long passions, as were wealthy, influential men who paid the bills and helped her business endeavours. But being the mistress of a busy man was not enough for Chanel. Her ambition needed an outlet. So, her lover took the classic route out of a very common predicament of the time, and set her up as a milliner, not as a profession, but as something to pass the time. Everything changed when she met a handsome and wealthy Englishman who shared her equine passions. They fell in love, probably the only time Chanel ever did. He took her to Paris and, within a year, she opened her first millinery establishment in a narrow backstreet called rue Cambon, on January 1 1910. Her lover, Boy Capel, took her with him everywhere and she soon learned how aristocrats and the beau monde lived, talked and dressed. Chanel was not happy with the fussy, encumbering pre-world War I high fashion look and when Capel gave her a boutique in Deauville in 1913, she began an insidious private war to try to make women as modern and comfortable in their clothing as men were — especially active, outdoor types like Capel. In Deauville, she introduced casual knits and dresses shockingly simple compared to what was coming out of the salons of the couturiers in Paris.

She chose the right moment. The 1914-1918 war was not a time for extravagance and the privations of war made women more receptive to simplicity then they might otherwise have been. Chanel was increasingly intrigued by the casual elegance of men's clothing, especially for wear in the country, and took many ideas from Capel's wardrobe, which were the basis for what was, by the end of the war a good business, with a Couture house registered in rue Cambon and a thriving establishment “pour le sport” in Biarritz. Both exemplified the principles that illuminated Coco Chanel's entire designing life: the luxury of simplicity; the insistence on perfection of workmanship and quality of materials and perhaps, her most lasting gift to fashion; the need for a fashionable woman to be slim and keep slim throughout her entire life.

Chanel's life and happiness — if she ever were happy — were torn apart by the death of Capel in a car accident in 1919. She later said that with his death she lost everything, but it could also be said that she gained a great deal. France, like Britain, was still in mourning for the young men lost in the carnage of the war. It has been calculated there was virtually no family in either country untouched by tragedy — and mourning filled the streets of Paris and London with women wearing black. Having no real family, Chanel had stood outside this very important moment for women. Capel's death — as violent and saddening as death in the trenches — made a bridge between her and the rest of her sex.

Despite her lack of formal education, Chanel had an intellectual acuity rare in fashion circles. She was aware that young women, looking at their mothers, destroyed by the loss of husbands and sons, felt it almost a compulsion to not fall in love. The independent garçonne was changing ideas of femininity and slim, sportive Chanel saw the signs before anyone else.

She never trusted men. She would take the money in exchange for her body and use it to preserve her independence. She chose lovers for their power and how it could help her. After Capel, there was the Grand Duke Dimitri of Russia and the Duke of Westminster and, during World War II, Haus Gunther von Dincklage, despite the fact that it was treason to consort with members of the occupying German force in Paris.

I believe her “little black dress” of the ‘20s was inspired by three things. Firstly Chanel recognised the need for post-war mourning — even for young women — but thought that it could be more chic than the traditional women's needs. Secondly, she wanted women to stop looking down–trodden and destroyed with grief. So she turned to formal menswear; the stiff white collar and starched cuffs made a chic declaration of masculine conformity and superiority. Add to this the grim memory of the nuns, whom she never ceased to hate in their black habits and white coifs, and the fact that spicing the black of a dress with white collar and cuffs perversely made an aristocrat into a indoor servant who served the tea and ran the bath water, and you have the sort of complex Rubik cube that so much of Chanel's fashion had.

As the century morphed into the '20s, Chanel was acknowledged as one of the great fashion leaders not only in Paris, but across the globe. Her style and palette seems as modern today as it was then: chic and sportive during the day, based on crisp, flattering linearity and romantic at night. It is often forgotten that in the '20s and '30s, she created feminine evening dresses of lace that gave women as much authority as her day wear did.

She didn't have everything her own way, of course there were other important couturiers in Paris, not least Vionnet, Madame Grès and Lanvin and her two arch rivals, Patou in the ‘20s and Schiaparelli in the ‘30s. Guarding her own position, she did everything to denigrate them and their style. Patou had great success in America — already emerging as a crucially lucrative market for French fashion, and one well worth fighting for. Schiaparelli had a fairground boldness and wit, which grabbed the headlines every season, to Chanel's deep chagrin.

Edna Woolman Chase, editor-in-chief of American, French and British Vogue for over half a century, frequently had run-ins with Chanel over how many editorial pages were devoted to her and to Patou. She objected to her clothes being featured on the same spread as his and frequently threatened to cancel her advertising if she couldn't have her own way. But Chase was every bit as tough as Chanel and it was usually the couturier who had to back down. As she observed: "Chanel has the spirit of a Till Eulenspiegel…One could never be sure whether her mischief making was deliberate or unconscious." I think the judgement of history would be less ambivalent.

Chanel spent World War II holed up in the Ritz with her German officer, von Dincklage, having closed down her business in 1939. With the cessation of war, France was out to punish those who had collaborated with the German occupation force. It was considered expedient for Chanel to leave France and she was spirited away to Switzerland, with the agreement of Winston Churchill it has always been rumoured.

And there Coco Chanel's career could have stopped, and she would have still held the honoured place she does today. But, instead, she decided to make a comeback — a risky decision for an old woman no longer in sympathy with the current fashions. Known as one of the leading modernises and directional creators of fashion in the 20th century, she had also, in Chanel No. 5, given the world its best known and most popular fragrance. Gossip at the time said that it was No. 5 that forced her decision, as it was losing its pole position without the glamour of clothes and fashion shows to bolster sales. Others claimed that it was Chanel's personal hatred of homosexual designers who, in the ‘50s, dominated Paris couture. Although she admired and accepted Balenciaga as a great craftsman as well as creator, she saw Dior, Balmain and others as undoing all the work she had done to simplify and modernise women's dress. She was determined to stop their chauvinistic romanticism (as it seemed to her) making overdressed masculine trophies of the modern woman whom she had worked so hard to create as a powerful being, largely dependant of men.

Chanel presented her new collection on February 5 1954. The French press, still unforgiving of her behaviour during the war, were lukewarm but the American and British press saw her soft, little suits as a breakthrough uniting chic and youth in a fresh accessible way. Chanel had pulled off a coup and a miracle. The Chanel suit is a standard garment in modern fashion, worn by teenagers as well as their grandmothers. And the miracle? She was 71 when she made her comeback. She died, alone, in 1971, aged 88, after a hard day’s work. Since that time more words have been written about her than any other fashion designer of the 20th century.

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