Gabrielle Chanel (Coco)
Gabrielle Chanel (1883 – 1971) was born out of wedlock in the French town of Saumur in the Loire Valley on 19 August 1883 to Albert Chanel, an itinerant salesman, and Jeanne Devolle. Her parents were finally married in July of 1884. Her mother died of asthma at the age of thirty-three. When Chanel was just twelve years old, she was sent along with her two sisters to an orphanage at Aubazine. During the holidays the girls stayed with their grandparents in Moulins. In 1900 Chanel moved there permanently and attended the local convent school with her aunt Adrienne, who was of a similar age. Having been taught to sew by the nuns, both girls found work as dressmakers, assisting Monsieur Henri Desboutin of the House of Grampayre.
Chanel sang during evening concerts at a fashionable café called La Rotonde. It is believed that her rendition of the song “Qui qu’a vu Coco dans le Trocadéro” earned her the nickname “Coco.” Chanel started to mix in fashionable circles when she went to live in 1908 with Etienne Balsan, who bred racehorses on his vast estate at La Croix-Saint-Ouen. Chanel’s astute choice of clothing— her neat tailor-made suits and masculine riding dress— and modest demeanor served to mark her out from the other courtesans. Thus from an early age Chanel demonstrated great confidence in her own sense of style, a formula that proved irresistible to other women. Soon Balsan’s friends asked her to make them copies of the boater hats that she trimmed and wore herself. Seizing upon this opportunity for financial independence, in 1908 – 1909 Chanel persuaded Balsan to let her use his Paris apartment at 160, boulevard Malesherbes to set up a millinery business. She employed a professional milliner and she engaged her sister Antoinette and two other assistants as the business grew.
While Chanel was in Paris, her friendship with the millionaire entrepreneur and polo player Arthur Capel, known as “Boy,” developed into love. It was Boy who lent her the money to rent commercial premises on the rue Cambon—where the House of Chanel was still located in the early 2000s—in the heart of Paris’s couture district. Chanel modes opened at 21, rue Cambon in 1910. From the outset, Chanel was the perfect model for her own designs, and she was photographed for the fall 1910 issue of the magazine Le théátre: Revue mensuelle illustrée. By 1912 hats by Chanel appeared in the popular press, worn by such leading actresses of the day as Lucienne Roger and Gabrielle Dorziat. Chanel had achieved financial independence. The terms of her lease, however, prevented her from selling clothes, as there was a dressmaker already working in the building.
First Collections, 1913 – 1919
While on vacation in Deauville on the west coast of France in the summer of 1913, Boy Capel found a shop for Chanel to open on the fashionable rue Gontaut-Biron, and it was here that she presented her first fashion collections. With the outbreak of World War I in July 1914, many wealthy and fashionable Parisians decamped to Deauville and shopped at Chanel’s boutique. It is believed that she sold only ready-to-wear clothing at this date. Chanel had cut her hair short during this period and many other women copied her bobbed hairstyle as well as bought her clothes. Chanel’s time had come: radical in their understatement, her versatile and sporty designs were to prove perfect for the more active lives led by many wealthy women during wartime.
In 1916 Chanel purchased a stock of surplus jersey fabric from the manufacturer Rodier, which she made into unstructured three-quarter-length coats belted at the waist and embellished with luxurious fabrics or furs, worn with matching skirts. That fall Chanel presented her first complete couture collection. The March 1917 issue of Les élégances parisiennes illustrates a group of jersey suits by Chanel, some of which are delicately embroidered, while others are strictly plain and accessorized with a saddlery-style double belt. All are worn with open-neck blouses with deep sailor collars. A 1918 design consisted of a coat of tan jersey banded with brown rabbit fur, with a lining and blouse of white-dotted rose foulard: this matching of the coat lining to the dress or blouse was to become a Chanel trademark. Striking in their simplicity and modernity, Chanel’s jersey fashions caused a sensation.
While Chanel’s daywear was characterized by its stylish utility, her evening wear was unashamedly romantic. In 1919 she presented fragile gowns in black Chantilly lace with gold-spun net and jet tassels and other gowns in silver lace brocade. Capes of black velvet adorned with rows of ostrich fringe revealed a Spanish influence—the very height of fashion that winter. This was the year that Chanel would announce, “I woke up famous,” but it was also the year that Boy Capel was killed in an automobile accident.
Fashions of the early 1920s. From 1920 to 1923 Chanel conducted a liaison with the grand duke Dmitri Pavlovitch, grandson of Russia’s Tsar Alexander II, and her collections during these years were imbued with Russian influences. Particularly noteworthy were loose shift dresses, waistcoats, blouses, and evening coats made in dark and neutral colors with exquisite, brightly colored, folkloric Russian embroideries stitched by exiled aristocrats. In 1922 Chanel showed long, lean, belted blouses based on Russian peasant wear.
By 1923 she had further simplified the cut of her clothes and offered fewer brocaded fabrics, while her embroideries—red and beige were favorite colors that year—displayed more restrained and modernistic designs. Chanel led the international trend toward shorter hemlines. Her premises on the rue Cambon, which had already expanded in 1919, grew to include numbers 27, 29, and 31 during the early 1920s.
Perfumes. Chanel launched her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, in 1921. Reputedly named for the designer’s lucky number, No. 5 was blended by Ernest Beaux, who used aldehydes (an organic compound which yields acids when oxidized and alcohols when reduced) to enhance the fragrance of such costly natural ingredients as jasmine, the perfume’s base note. Chanel designed the modern pharmaceutical-style bottle and monochrome packaging herself. Chanel No. 5 was the first perfume to bear a designer’s name. Building upon the success of No. 5, Chanel introduced Cuir de Russie (1924), Bois des Iles (1926), and Gardénia (1927) before the end of the decade.
La garçonne. Chanel’s interpretation of masculine styles and sportswear—her blazers, waistcoats, and shirts with cufflinks, as well as her choice of fabrics—were greatly inspired by the garments worn by the duke of Westminster (an Englishman with whom she was involved between 1923 and 1930) and his aristocratic friends. Following a fishing holiday in Scotland, she introduced her customers to Fair Isle woolens and tweeds. The duke bought her a mill to secure exclusive fabrics for her new styles. Chanel was also inspired by humbler items of masculine apparel, including berets, reefer jackets, mechanics’ dungarees, stonemasons’ neckerchiefs, and sailor suits, which she rendered utterly luxurious for her wealthy clients. Chanel herself often wore loose sailor-style trousers, flouting the rules of sartorial etiquette that generally restricted women from wearing trousers to the beach or within the home as evening pajamas.
In 1927 Vogue recommended Chanel’s jersey suit in soft tan wool, with collar, cuffs, blouse, and jacket lining in rose jersey, for the woman who wanted to look chic on board ship. The long-line jacket buttoned diagonally, while the skirt was box-pleated at the front. Throughout her career Chanel paid great attention to the cut of her sleeves, ensuring that they permitted the wearer to move with ease without distorting the lines of the garment. By the fall of 1929 her sports costumes were still slim but longer, with hemlines reaching below the calf.
The little black dress. Chanel had designed black dresses as early as 1913, when she made a black velvet dress with a white petal collar for Suzanne Orlandi. In April 1919 British Vogue reported that “Chanel takes into account the lack of motors and the general difficulty of living in Paris just now by her almost invariably black evening dresses” (p. 48). But it was not until American Vogue (1 October 1926) described a garçonne-style black day dress as “The Chanel ‘Ford’—the frock that all the world will wear” (p. 69) that the little black dress took the fashion world by storm. And although the use of black in fashion has a long history, Chanel has been credited as its originator ever since.
Theatrical costume. The stage was a prominent showcase for fashion designers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chanel always moved in artistic circles, and she often supported the work of her friends both financially and by working collaboratively with them. In 1922 she designed Grecian-style costumes in coarse wool for Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone; the designs were featured in French Vogue (1 February 1923). The following year she dressed the dancers of the Ballets russes in jersey bathing costumes and sports clothes similar to those seen in her fashion collections for the modern-realist production Le train bleu (1924). And in 1926 the actresses in Cocteau’s Orphée were dressed head to toe in Chanel’s latest fashions.
Jewelry. Chanel believed the role of jewelry was to decorate an ensemble rather than to flaunt wealth, and she challenged convention by wearing heaps of jewelry, often precious, during the day—even for sailing—while for evening she sometimes wore no jewelry at all. The loose, straight-cut shapes of Chanel’s fashions and her use of many plain fabrics provided the perfect foil for the lavish costume jewelry that she introduced in the early 1920s. Lacking any desire to replicate precious jewels, Chanel’s designs, initially made by Maison Gripoix, defied nature in their bold use of color and size. In 1924 she opened her own jewelry workshop, which was managed by the comte Etienne de Beaumont. Beaumont designed the long chains with colored stones and cross-shaped pendants that became a classic of her house. Chanel was fond of Byzantine crosses, and she was also inspired by the buttons, chains, and tassels of military costumes.
Her oversized fake pearls, worn in multiple strands, were an instant success. In 1926 Chanel created a vogue for mismatched earrings by wearing a black pearl in one ear and a white one in the other. In 1928 she introduced diamond paste jewelry and in 1929 offered “gypsy” necklaces—triple strands of red, green, and yellow beads, as well as colored beads combined with chunky wooden chains.
Fashions of the later 1920s. By the late 1920s Chanel’s fashions were adorned with geometric designs. For day-wear she used stripes and checks as well as patterns inspired by Fair Isle knitwear; for evening many of her black lace fabrics were combined with metallic, embroidered, or beaded laces.
At the height of her fame and with the demand for Paris couture at its peak, Chanel employed between two and three thousand workers during the mid- to late 1920s. She was said, however, to be a hard taskmaster and to pay poor wages. In 1927 she opened her London house. British Vogue pointed out in early June 1927 that, while the conception and feel of Chanel’s current collection was essentially French, the designer had adapted it for London social life. For the Royal Ascot racing meet she offered a long-sleeved black lace dress with trailing scarf detail and, for presentation at court, an understated white taffeta dress with a train that was cut in one piece with the skirt, complemented by a simple headdress based on the Prince of Wales feathers. In September 1929 Vogue wrote, “When Chanel, the sponsor of the straight, chemise dress and the boyish silhouette, uses little, rippling capes on her fur coats and a high waist-line and numerous ruffles on an evening gown, then you may be sure that the feminine mode is a fact and not a fancy” (p. 35).
In tune with her modernist fashion aesthetic, Chanel installed faceted glass mirrors in her Paris couture salon around 1928. These mirrors brought the advantage of allowing her to sit out of sight to watch her shows. In complete contrast to the salon, her private apartment on the third floor of 31, rue Cambon was lavish and ornate. It is now carefully preserved, decorated with Coromandel screens, Louis XIV furniture, Venetian mirrors, blackamoor sculptures, and smoked crystal and amethyst chandeliers. When designing clothes, Chanel would pare away the nonessentials for the sake of the wearer’s comfort; when designing domestic interiors, on the other hand, she believed that clutter was a necessity—that it was essential to be surrounded by the objects one needed and loved.
Fashions of the early 1930s. Although Chanel’s business may have suffered during the depression—she is said to have halved her prices in 1932—her workforce increased to around four thousand employees by 1935. Chanel’s saleswomen as well as her seamstresses went on strike in June 1936 to protest their poor wages and working conditions. In April 1936 the French people voted in a left-wing coalition government headed by Leon Blum, which was followed by a number of strikes including the workers at Chanel. Chanel refused to implement the Matignon Agreement, which introduced wage increases of 7 to 15 percent, the right to collective bargaining and unionize, a 40-hour week and a 2-week paid annual holiday. Instead she fired 300 women who refused to leave the building and only later, in order to produce her next collection, agreed to introduce a workers co-operative on the understanding that she managed it (Madsen, p. 216).
From 1930 Chanel’s hemlines became longer and were slightly flared; she emphasized her waists, and her jackets had soft, bloused bodices. Bows were to become a signature motif, used as decorative details on the shoulders and skirts of her garments. Cravat bows provided a feminine touch to her blouses, and crisp white frills were added around the collars and cuffs of her black suits and dresses. From 1934 Chanel used American elasticized fabrics made with a brand of yarn with a latex core called Lastex in her collections to create clothes with a crepe-like surface, and she frequently combined these with jersey.
During the 1930s she launched her cosmetics line and introduced a new perfume called Glamour. She further boosted her revenue by endorsing other manufacturers’ products and designing for other companies. In 1931 she promoted Ferguson Brothers’ cottons—her spring collection included cotton evening gowns—and she designed knitwear for Ellaness and raincoats for David Mosley and Sons. She also earned $2 million for her work in Hollywood that year.
Screen and stage. When hemlines dropped in 1929, Hollywood’s movie studios were devastated, as thousands of reels of film were instantly rendered old-fashioned. Rather than continue to follow Parisian fashions slavishly, the studio magnate Samuel Goldwyn invited Chanel to design costumes directly for his leading female stars, including Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, and Marlene Dietrich. Chanel, however, produced designs for just three Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer productions: Palmy Days (1931), Tonight or Never (1931), and The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932). Many actresses refused to have Chanel’s style imposed on them, and her designs were either overlooked or criticized for being too understated for the screen.
In Paris, Chanel continued to design for progressive plays, providing costumes for Cocteau’s La machine infernale (1934) as well as Les chevaliers de la table ronde and Oedipe-Roi, both of which appeared in 1937. In addition, despite her dislike of left-wing politics, she created the costumes for Jean Renoir’s radical film La marseillaise and for La règle du jeu, both produced in 1938.
Jewelry. In 1932 the International Guild of Diamond Merchants commissioned Chanel to design a collection of diamonds set in platinum called Bijoux de Diamants. Having designed fake jewels during affluent times, Chanel now declared that diamonds were an investment. Along with her current lover, Paul Iribe, she presented a line of jewelry based on the themes of knots, stars, and feathers. The collection was exhibited in her own home in the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré in Paris.
During the 1930s, Fulco di Santostefano della Cerda, duc di Verdura, started to design jewelry for Chanel. He had been designing textiles for her since 1927. Most significantly, di Verdura pioneered the revival of baked enamel jewelry: his chunky, baked enamel bracelets inset with jeweled Maltese crosses were particularly successful. Christian Bérard also designed occasional pieces for her, and Maison Gripoix continued to make up many of her designs—notably those in romantic floral and rococo-revival styles. From the mid- to late 1930s Chanel’s heavy triangular bibs of colored stones and coins and her silk cord necklaces with tassels of brilliantly colored stones showed influences from India and Southeast Asia.
Fashions of the later 1930s. Chanel’s daywear continued to be characterized by its simplicity, but—perhaps sur-prisingly—she participated in the vogue for Victorian-revival styles, presenting cinch-waisted, full-skirted, and bustle-backed evening gowns worn with shoulder-length lace gloves and floral accessories. Decidedly more modern was the trouser suit worn by the fashion editor Diana Vreeland in 1937-1938 that consisted of a black bolerostyle jacket and high-waisted trousers entirely covered with overlapping sequins. The metallic sheen of the sequins contrasted with a soft cream silk chiffon and lace blouse with ruffled neckline and fastened with pearl buttons. Chanel’s dramatic combinations of black with white or scarlet remained popular. In the late 1930s her evening wear revealed influences from gypsy and peasant sources: skirts in multicolored taffetas, sometimes striped or checked, and worn with puff-sleeved, embroidered blouses.
The war years. Chanel closed her fashion house during World War II but continued to sell her perfumes. For the duration of the war she lived in Paris at the Hotel Ritz with her German lover, an officer in the German army named Hans-Gunther von Dincklage. When Paris was liberated in 1944, Chanel fled to Switzerland and did not return to the rue Cambon for almost a decade.
Fashions of the 1950s. Chanel started working again at the age of seventy in 1953, partly to boost her flagging perfume sales. Her fashion philosophy remained unchanged: she extolled function and comfort in dress and declared her aim of making women look pretty and young. On 5 February 1954 she presented her first postwar collection, a line of understated suits and dresses. The general press response, however, was that Chanel was too old and out of touch with the modern market, and only a few models sold. On the other hand, American Vogue (15 February 1954) thought “the great revolutionist” sufficiently important to justify a three-and-a-half-page article devoted to her career and fashion philosophy: “A dress isn’t right if it is uncomfortable. . . . A dress must function; place the pockets accurately for use, never a button without a button-hole. A sleeve isn’t right unless the arm moves easily. Elegance in clothes means freedom to move freely” (American Vogue, p. 84).
By modernizing the formulas that had brought her so much success earlier in her career, Chanel succeeded in reestablishing herself as a fashion designer of international stature. For spring-summer 1955 she presented a gray jersey suit consisting of a softly-fitted jacket complete with pockets and a full box-pleated skirt, worn with a bow-tied white blouse. Navy jersey suits had schoolgirl-style blazer jackets and were banded with white trim or worn with knitwear striped in navy and white. Buttons were often covered in fabrics that matched the suit, and sometimes meticulously trimmed with the contrasting fabric that was used to outline the pockets and form the attached shirt cuffs. Other buttons were molded in bold brass, sometimes featuring a lion’s head—Chanel’s birth sign was Leo—or made in more delicate gilt, perhaps with a cutwork floral motif.
In 1957 Chanel introduced braid trimmings to her cardigan-style jackets. For fall-winter 1957 – 1958 her suits had a wrap pleat that ran down the side of the skirt and concealed a trouser-style pocket. Unusually, she showed a hat with every model—these were upturned sailor-style hats made in soft fabrics that matched the suits with which they were worn. As always, she paid great attention to the linings of her coats and suits: this season, camel hair was lined with red guanaco, gray tweed with white squirrel, and red velour with fluffy gray goatskin. Her coats were cut in the same style as her suit jackets, simply lengthened to the same level as the skirt hem.
Chanel’s modern suits in nubby wools, tweeds, or jersey fabrics with their multiple functional pockets, teamed with gilt chains and fake pearl jewelry; her distinctive handbags; and her sling-back shoes with contrasting toe caps, became fashion staples for the affluent. And as before, her designs were widely copied for the mass market: the company sold toiles to the British chain store Wallis so that it could legitimately reproduce Chanel’s designs.
For evening Chanel offered variations on her suits in such lavish materials as gold-trimmed brocade, and she remained faithful to her love of black-and-white laces for dresses. A cocktail dress from the spring-summer 1958 collection had a bodice of navy-and-white-striped silk with a large bow at the neckline and a full skirt of white organdy, banded at the hem with the same striped fabric.
“The maison Chanel might be called the ‘Jersey House’, for the creations of Mlle. Chanel have long been and long will be in jersey. Of late, a thin firm quality of cotton velvet has been used by Chanel for cloaks and certain frocks.” (British Vogue, early October 1917, p. 30).
For spring-summer 1959 she presented a black lace dress, dipping low at the back and molded to the hipline, which was threaded with black ribbon and flared into a full skirt; it was accessorized with a long chain with linked pearls and chunky, colored stones. That season the collection was modeled by the designer’s friends—stylish young women who were accustomed to wearing her clothes.
Perfumes and accessories. In 1954 Chanel introduced a man’s fragrance, Pour Monsieur. The same year Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, who already owned Parfums Chanel, bought her entire business, and it remained within the Wertheimer family as of the early 2000s.
In 1955 Chanel introduced quilted handbags with shoulder straps of leather plaited with gilt chains with flattened links, similar to those used to weight her jackets. The bags were offered in leather or jersey and were initially available in beige, navy, brown, and black, lined with red grosgrain or leather—Chanel chose a lighter color for the interior to help women find small items in their bags. Updated each season, Chanel’s distinctive handbags were still top sellers in the early 2000s.
By 1960 fashions by Chanel were no longer at the forefront of style. She abhorred the miniskirt, believing that a woman’s knees were always best concealed. But nonetheless she continued to clothe a faithful clientele in suits that were subtly reworked each season. One of her most high-profile and stylish clients from this period was Jacqueline Kennedy.
A suit that Chanel herself wore during the mid-1960s (model 37750) was purchased by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. It consists of a three-quarter-length jacket and a dress made of black worsted crepe that reaches just below the knee, accessorized with a black silk stockinette-brimmed hat. Pristine white collar and cuffs are integral to the jacket—some clients complained that these touches wore out long before the jacket itself. Neat, unadorned, monochrome, and entirely functional, the suit has echoes of a school uniform.
In 1962 Chanel was again invited to design for the cinema, this time to dress Romy Schneider in Luchino Visconti’s film Boccaccio ’70 and Delphine Seyrig in Alain Resnais’s film Last Year at Marienbad. In 1969 Chanel herself became the subject of a Broadway musical called Coco, written by Alan Jay Lerner. With Chanel’s permission, the title role was played by Katharine Hepburn.
Chanel died on 10 January 1971 in the midst of preparing her spring-summer 1971 collection. Her personal clothing and jewelry was sold at auction in London in December 1978.
Following Chanel’s death, Gaston Berthelot was appointed to design classic garments in the Chanel tradition between 1971 and 1973. The perfume No. 19, named after Chanel’s birthday, was launched in 1970. From 1974 Jean Cazaubon and Yvonne Dudel designed the couture line; in 1978 a ready-to-wear range was designed by Philippe Guibourgé; and in 1980 Ramon Esparza joined the couture team. But it was not until 1983, when Karl Lagerfeld was appointed chief designer, that the House of Chanel once again made fashion headlines: it remains the ultimate in desirability for a clientele of all ages in the early 2000s.
Since his appointment, Lagerfeld has continued to reference the Chanel style, sometimes offering classic interpretations and at other times making witty and ironic statements. Ultimately, he has developed the label to make it relevant to the contemporary market. Like its founder, he draws on sportswear for inspiration: surfing and cycling outfits inspired his fall-winter 1990-1991 collection; training shoes bearing the distinctive interlocked CC logo were shown for fall-winter 1993-1994; nautical styles were shown for spring-summer 1994; and skiwear styles were featured in fall-winter 2003-2004. While Chanel looked to the utilitarian dress of the working man, Lagerfeld derives his ideas from contemporary social subcultures. He has presented fetishistic PVC jeans, lace-up bustiers, dog collars, and plastic raincoats (fall-winter 1991-1992); biker-style leather jackets, trousers, and boots (fall-winter 1992-1993 and fall-winter 2002-2003); B-Boy- and Ragga-inspired styles (spring-summer 1994); and a more eclectic “rock chic” (fall-winter 2003-2004). The tweed suit continues to be a mainstay of the collections, satisfying classic tastes with cardigan styles and the more adventurous younger clients with tweed bra tops and micro-miniskirts. The classic cardigan-style suit has also been offered in terry cloth, while denim jackets are trimmed with Chanel’s favorite camellia flowers (both for spring-summer 1991). Costume jewelry is used in abundance, and the little black dress is still inextricably associated with the name of Chanel.
To ensure the survival of the refined craft skills of the couture industry, the House of Chanel purchased five artisan workshops in 2002: the top embroiderer François Lesage, the expert shoemaker Raymond Massaro, the flamboyant milliner Maison Michel, the feather specialist André Lemarié, and the leading costume jeweler Desrues.
Chanel perfumes remain top sellers. Since the founder died, the company has launched Cristalle (1974), Coco (1984), No. 5 Eau de Parfum (1986), Allure (1996), Coco Mademoiselle (2001), and Chance (2002) for women and Antaeus pour Homme (1981), Egoïste (1990), Platinum Egoïste (1993), and Allure Homme (1999) for men.
Charles-Roux, Edmonde. Chanel and Her World. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979. Extensively illustrated in black and white, a standard text covering Chanel’s major design achievements as well as her private and social life.
____. Chanel. London: Collins Harvill, 1989.
de la Haye, Amy, and Shelley Tobin. Chanel: The Couturière at Work. London: V and A Publications, 1994. Detailed analysis of Chanel’s designs and working practice. Extensively illustrated in color, including many museum garments in detail.
Madsen, Axel. Coco Chanel: A Biography. London: Bloomsbury, 1990. Comprehensive account of Chanel’s life.
Morand, Paul. L’allure de Chanel. London: Herman, 1976. An insight into Chanel’s life written by an author friend.
Mauriès, Patrick. Jewellery by CHANEL. London: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1993.