Undoubtedly, Coco Chanel is known for her elegance, personal mystique and glamorous lifestyle. But, as with Dorian Gray, just how photogenic is a hedonist?
Gabrielle Chanel’s mother died when she was twelve. Her father abandoned her and her sisters at a Catholic convent in central France. Here the nuns taught her how to sew. After leaving the convent, she earned her living as a seamstress but also as a cabaret singer earning the nickname “Coco”.
Coco was not talented enough to sing professionally. At the age of 23, she became the mistress of Etienne Balsan, a wealthy textile heir who provided her with a life of wealth and leisure. And much partying. Coco began an affair with one of Balsan’s friends, Capt. “Boy” Capel. Capel got Coco an apartment in Paris where Coco began experimenting with hat making. It was a hobby that turned into a profession when Capel gave her the money to open her own shop (31 rue Cambon). But Capel gave her something even more important—a sense of style. In fact, it’s said that Chanel’s double C logo represents a ”C” for Chanel and a ”C” for Capel.
At the beginning of the 1900s, fashion for women was not made for movement. What Chanel did, basically, was transform male clothing into female fashion. She claimed that “luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it’s not luxury”. So the first thing she did was liberate women from corsets. Then she introduced jersey fabric, traditionally used for undergarments and sports clothing, to high fashion.
The idea was to be simple but elegant. Chanel also introduced the collarless cardigan, black sweater with pearls, female trousers, the little black dress, costume jewelry and the shoulder bag. And of course, there was her perfume Chanel No. 5.
Coco liberated women from corsets and motion prohibiting garments with her designs initially inspired by male clothing. Her contribution was that of changing the way women and their bodies were perceived. Women were no longer still-lives but action movies.
During WWII, despite the difficulties for her fellow Frenchmen, Coco continued to live a life of luxury at the Ritz Hotel surrounded by Nazi officers. Not only did she party with them, she took them on as lovers, too. There is no doubt that Coco was an opportunist and tried to make the best out of a bad situation. Unfortunately, post-war France did not guaranteed that same privilege to all women.
Tondeurs and tondues.
At the end of WWII, over 20,000 French women were accused of having had “horizontal collaborations” with the Germans. Even prostitutes, who sold their bodies to the Germans in the same way bistrot owners had sold their wines, were singled out and publicly humiliated by having their hair shaved off then paraded in public semi-naked often with swastikas painted on their foreheads. This punishment was obviously misogynistic as it was restricted to women. Furthermore, because of a war instigated by men, many French mothers of young children had husbands in German prisoner-of-war camps. Without pleasure, they slept with German soldiers simply to feed their children.
Coco was not subjected to this shame. Instead, she went off to Switzerland with her German boyfriend. Here they lived in style for many years until Coco decided to return to Paris to save the fashion industry as, in her opinion, it had become too male dominated. Upon her return, she was asked about her Nazi boyfriends to which she replied “I don’t ask my lovers for their passports”.
Nazi documents confiscated by the Soviets indicate that Coco had been a German spy with the code name “Westminster”. Maybe it’s this that caused Coco to be a morphine addict for the rest of her life. Survival is not always easy.