One of the prime movers in the reconfiguration of women’s style during the early 20th century was, herself, a person of change and reinvention. Only someone as bold as Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, could pull off such a lifestyle tour de force.
Chanel was a bold personality who embodied self-invention. Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born on August 19, 1883 in Saumur, France, the second daughter fathered by Albert Chanel. Gabrielle was first raised by her then unmarried mother, Jeanne Devolle. The following year, the parents married. Eventually two boys and another girl were born to the family.
During Gabrielle’s twelfth year, her mother died of bronchitis. Albert assigned his two sons to work as farm laborers. The three daughters were sent to a “poorhouse for abandoned and orphaned girls”, the convent of Aubazine. Chanel later claimed to be born in more fashionable Auvergne, not the pedestrian town of Saumur, ten years later and raised by cold -hearted spinster aunts. Another tall-tale was that her father immigrated to America to seek fortune and fame.
When she still lived at the orphanage, Gabrielle learned how to sew. She was later able to find gainful employment as a seamstress. Later, she earned extra francs by singing at the cabaret, “La Rotonde”. She was one of several girls who entertained the patrons between star acts. This was when Gabrielle was given the nickname “Coco”. That moniker may have been derived from two current songs, “Ko Ko Ri Ko” and “Qui qu’e vu Coco”. Chanel sometimes said it alluded to the word “cocotte” (coquette).
In her 20s, Chanel started to create hats as a hobby. In 1910, she opened a small boutique, “Chanel Modes” in Paris to sell the hats. Trendsetting actress Gabrielle Dorzial began wearing Chanel hats, making Chanel’s creations popular among the elite. Coco no longer needed mystery nor little white lies to make her famous.
The hat boutique provided just enough income in order to enable a new line of clothing. Chanel took a practical, pragmatic approach to her new designs. She decided to use the cloth used for men’s undergarments, jersey. The fabric is inexpensive, stretchy, comfortable and allows for a fancy “drape”. The jersey fabric was just the thing for her sportswear line, and it was cheap.
The revolutionary casual knit outfits struck a chord with the new generation of young women who were coming of age at the dawning of the roaring 1920s. Coco Chanel had become the role model for more assertive women. They emulated her short-cropped hair, and adopted the boxy silhouettes and straight lines of Chanel’s designs. The young ladies also liked Chanel’s use of classic beiges, whites, and blacks for color schemes. The whole look adapted well to their more active lifestyles. Their corsets were retired forever.
The House of Chanel was off and running by 1920. Chanel enhanced her success by earning the loyalty of well-to-do clients from around the world. As her sporty styles became accepted in high society, less prestigious manufacturers adopted Chanels sense of style and provided lower cost clothing for other women. Chanel-type sportswear became the norm.
Chanel’s several boutiques evolved and expanded from her maison de couture at 31 rue Cambon, established in 1918. The new shops featured her hats and clothing. The boutiques included accessories, jewelry and soon, fragrance.
Chanel’s first women’s fragrance was mixed by chemist/perfumer Ernest Beaux. He created two series of samples. One through five and 20 through 24. Beaux asked Chanel to choose one of them. Her choice was sample five. Because of this, the perfume was named “No. 5”.
Chanel decided to carry the theme to its logical conclusion. The date of introduction was the 5th day of the 5th month. On May 5, 1921 at her rue Cambon Boutique, “Chanel No. 5” was first promoted. The perfume went on to become one of Chanel’s most popular and famous products. It’s still a prestigious mainstay of contemporary fashion.
Coco Chanel continued her fashion work up to World War Two, but closed her European boutiques during the war, saying that wartime is no time for high fashion. There was some controversy about her romantic affair with Chief of Intelligence, General Walter Schellenberg. The spurious Nazi connection contributed to a severe dip in Chanel’s popularity with the postwar public. A long awaited comeback didn’t happen until the late 1950s.
Post World War Two fashion had become dominated by Christian Dior’s “New Look” of very feminine, rounded shoulders, full skirts and small waists. It was the opposite of Chanel’s sense of style. Coco couldn’t stand it. She decided to rework her earlier successes with a new line of classic suits featuring slim skirts and a return to boxy jackets.
Coco Chanel soon enjoyed a ride on some powerful political coat tails. Her fashion rebirth came in the early 1960s when First Lady, Jackie Kennedy appeared on the scene, wearing Chanel fashions. The popular first lady’s sense of style appealed to America’s pragmatic sensibilities, so the Chanel look took root again, especially in the US and Britain.
By 1970, Chanel had scaled back her work and activities and lived in Switzerland. Coco Chanel died Sunday, January 10, 1971 at her residence in the Hotel Ritz. She was buried at Lausanne, Switzerland.