Coco Chanel – from rags to riches

by Jade Rhode

From the iconic garments to memorable fashion statements, here is all you need to know about the legendary Coco Chanel.

Source: Captured by Man Ray. Madame Coco Chanel – known for her bitter personality – photographed in 1935 wearing her trademark pearls.

Early life

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born on 19 August 1883 in the rural town of Saumur, France. As far as we know, Chanel was only christened Gabrielle after her parents’ marriage after one of her birthdays. Although her future was glamourous, Chanel had a tough upbringing.

Source: A portrait of the future designer in 1914.

Chanel lived in immense poverty with her parents and four other siblings. After the death of her mother at age 12, her father made the decision to drop off Chanel and her two sisters at an orphanage… and never looked back. Along with her sisters, she grew up in a strict catholic institution filled with the stereotypically nasty nuns. The rules and regulations of the convent only made Chanel rebellious. This could be the reason for her sassiness and what eventually hardened her.

Not much notice was taken of the less fortunate back in the 19th century. Therefore, the facts of Chanel’s early life aren’t easily verifiable, Being the person that she was, Chanel used this to her advantage.

Where it all began

Source: Chanel – pictured here with none other than her trademark pearls – once said “Luxury must not be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.”

Being a young adult in the 1900s, Chanel yearned for an extravagant life. She first started her career as a seamstress in Moulins – a town known for its rich art and history. Apart from working as a seamstress, Chanel was also a singer and used her talent to earn extra money by performing at the local bars. There are many stories as to how Chanel got the nickname “Coco”, but all we know is that the popular beauty got the nickname while singing at the bar.

So how did Coco start her fashion career? Well, it all started when she became a mistress, a blessee if you will. In 1906, she became the mistress of French textile heir and racehorse owner Étienne Balsan. I could say that she struck gold as her two passions in life were fabric and horses; not forgetting wealthy men who could pay her bills! Chanel found that being a mistress of a busy man like Balsan just wasn’t enough. Balsan then did what any blesser would do: he helped Chanel financially by setting up a shop where she could construct and sell hats (a millinery if you want to be fancy.) Her designs soon helped establish her reputation as a fashionable designer.

Source: Chanel in 1910 with one of her hats.

Not too long after that Chanel took interest in Balsan’s homeboy, who coincidentally had the nickname “Boy.” Wealthy (as she liked them) Englishman Boy Capel too had a passion for horses. The two became lovers and fled to Paris. Within a year she once again opened shop to sell her hats. Chanel lived the highlife with Boy and was soon familiar with the aristocrats’ movements and dress code.

But typical Chanel was not happy with the women’s fashion pre-WW1. After being given a boutique by Boy, Chanel made it her mission to allow women to feel the same modernity and comfortability as men when it came to fashion. She used menswear as inspiration, often taking ideas from Boy’s wardrobe. You could surmise it was at this time that the “Chanel look” was born.

Influence on fashion and perfume

Source: Captured by Santé Forlano for "Vogue", 1958. Chanel also popularised tweed to create suit jackets as seen on this model. The use of tweed came after frequent trips to Scotland with the Duke of Westminister.

For the women, by the woman

Chanel changed the fashion game by challenging many fashion stereotypes, not only for women in her era, but for today’s women too. She revolutionized the image of the female body by staying away from corsets and all things considered to be feminine. She introduced new beauty standards by including the words “sporty” and “casual” to the female fashion vocabulary.

This was done by incorporating pieces of menswear such as pants, suits and jackets into women’s wardrobes. Back then, women could only wear trousers if they were working in traditional male roles. Some of the most influential celebrities of the 20th century donned Chanel’s pants, which made them all the more popular. I guess women have her to thank when it comes to the wearing of trousers. Basically, you can say that Chanel thought “to hell with that!”. The “creation” of trousers for women was liberating and unknowingly a huge step in feminism.

Source: Chanel (left) and actresses Katherine Hepburn (middle) and Marlene Dietrich (right) making a fashion statement with the power pants and suits.

LBD: Little Black Dress

In the mid-1920s, Chanel created the Little Black Dress. It is described as the Ford of clothing. It is said that Chanel took inspiration from the black outfits women wore when mourning their loved ones lost in the war. She gave the garment a completely new meaning by making it fashionable rather than having it represent loss. The next few decades, the LBD became a staple garment in every women’s closet, Chanel brand or not.

Source: Every designer took inspiration from the “little black dress”. Pictured here (from left to right) are dresses by Chanel (1925-27), Charles Creed (1942), Christian Dior (circa 1950), Hubert de Givenchy (1968) and Arnold Scaasi (circa 1966).
Source: Chanel in 1952 seeing to one of her many “little black dress” creations. She is of course smoking and wearing her signature pearls.

Chanel No.5

Chanel created many perfumes, but the most popular was her first, Chanel No. 5. The perfume was created by Ernest Breaux, a former perfumer for the tsars. The name of the perfume is said to be named after the fifth scent that was presented to Chanel. There was much gossip about the reason why Chanel decided to create her popular perfume, Chanel No.5.

Many said that she was forced to create No.5 due to her being quite old in the game of fashion and needed something to boost her sales. If this were to be true, it clearly worked out for her. Others made the claim that it was Chanel’s personal hatred for the LGBTQIA+ designers during the 50s who dominated the scene. Let’s hope that it was the first reason mentioned as it would be a shame to know that this iconic designer had such hatred in her heart.

The iconic handbag

Source: Over the years, the iconic leather Chanel handbag saw many styles, but what remained was the cross-stitching and gold chain.

Chanel – the brand

Source: The classic intertwined Cs became the logo that represents Coco Chanel.

The company is now owned by French businessmen and brothers Alain and Gerard Wertheimer. In 1983, another icon, Karl Lagerfeld, became the brand’s creative director until his passing in 2019. Virginie Viard – who was Lagerfeld’s closest collaborator for over 30 years – succeeded Lagerfeld. Viard was also the director of the company’s fashion design studio. Today, the brand not only provides luxurious garments and fragrances, but watches, makeup and skincare products too.

Source: Chanel’s current creative director, Virginie Viard.
Source: An older Coco in 1969 watching her spring/summer collection in Paris.

On 10 January 1971, at the age of 88, Coco Chanel said goodbye to the world. She died in her room at the Ritz in Paris. Chanel has definitely created a fempire. Even with her absence, she still dominates the world of fashion. Talk about a badass!

If you’d like to check out the life of Chanel, there are a few films to choose from. All show a different part of her life: Coco before Chanel, portrayed by Audrey Tautou; Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, portrayed by Anna Mouglasis; The Return, portrayed by Geraldine Chaplin; Once Upon a Time, portrayed by Keira Knightley and Coco Chanel, portrayed by Shirley MacClaine.

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