If you are a fashionista and influencer you have to know the origin of the little black dress. It was none other than Coco Chanel who invented and popularized the “little black dress” in 1926 among her other trademark designs that included the Chanel suit (1923), the quilted purse (1929), and costume jewelry (1933). The dame of haute couture was named by Time magazine among 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel born in Samur was a French designer and modernizer who post-World War I era helped women to get out of petticoats and corsets and get into sporty, casual chic as an evolving style of Parisian haute couture. She also introduced them to Chanel No 5, the parfum, a fragrance of bouquet of flowers with an indefinable femininity. Born on August 19, 1883, she ruled fashion and fragrance for decades until she died on January 10, 1971.
Born to impoverished and unwed parents, Eugénie Jeanne Devolle and Albert Chanel,
Gabrielle was one among their six children Alphonse, Julia, Antoinette, Lucien, and Augustin who lived in a one-room lodging in the town of Brive-la-Gaillarde.
When she was only 11 years, her mother died and Gabrielle along with the two sisters were sent off to the Catholic orphanage of Aubaziane. Here she developed resourcefulness, razor-sharp survival instincts, and learned to sew. At 18, Chanel, went to live in a boarding house for Catholic girls in the town of Moulins. During the day she worked as a seamstress and later in the evenings as a café singer in a Moulins pavilion, La Rotonde. It was in this place that Gabrielle earned the name ‘Coco’ while singing the cabaret song, “Who Has Seen Coco?” This is also where her colourful life as a ‘Cocotte – kept woman’ was about to begin…
Millinery and Men, not Music for Me
By now Coco understood she was neither a great singer nor a great stage performer in Moulins but her youth and charms surely enticed men. At the age of 23 Chanel fell in love with a young French ex-cavalry officer and textile heir, Étienne Balsan. She began to live in château Royallieu near Compiègne with Balsan as his mistress. It was Balsan’s wealth that introduced Coco Chanel to “the rich life”—diamonds, dresses, and pearls.
In 1908, one of Balsan’s friends and her wealthy admirer Arthur (“Boy”) Capel, stole her away from Balsan. Chanel reminisced of this time in her life: “two gentlemen were outbidding for my hot little body”. While Balsan had introduced Coco to a rich life, Arthur, financed her first boutique in 1910 at 21 rue Cambon, Paris, named Chanel Modes. As a licensed milliner she began to sell hats. By 1918, her well-financed store in Deauville, began to sell jersey designs that attracted thousands of wealthy women who wanted out from the corset. They also sold hats, jackets, sweaters, and the marinière, the sailor blouse. In 1918, another villa boutique store was opened at Biarritz on the Côte Basque, where the rich exiled Spanish resided. With business booming, in 1919, Chanel registered as a couturière and established the maison de couture at 31 rue Cambon, Paris. While haute couture was growing the 9 year Coco-Capel hot affair was dying. In 1920, Chanel introduced the famed interlocked-CC logo, which she designed.
Chanel No 5
In 1921, her fashion boutique, sold clothing, hats, and accessories but it was the fragrance Chanel No 5 that strengthened the foundation of her fashion empire. The perfume got its name from Chanel and the fifth scent that was introduced to her by Ernst Beaux, the best known perfume creators in France then. It was a complex combination of jasmine and several other floral scents different from the existing single-scented perfumes on the market at that time. Chanel partnered with businessmen Théophile Bader of the Galeries Lafayette department store and Pierre Wertheimer of the Bourjois cosmetics company, whom both agreed to help her produce the fragrance and market it in exchange for a share of the profits. After signing a contract to receive 10 percent royalties, much later it dawned upon her that she had undersold herself. Not able to get back the rights Chanel 5 continued to provide considerable profits.
A whirlwind of romance
By 1927 as did Coco Chanel’s properties grow on the rue Cambon (No. 23 to 31), so was Coco’s popularity. She began to mingle with men from the British aristocracy and politics, men the Duke of Westminster, Edward, Prince of Wales, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, and Winston Churchill. She was bestowed with gifts that ranged from houses in London’s prestigious Mayfair district and in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, French Riviera, to jewels and art. Hollywood came calling in 1934. Chanel designed costumes for Gloria Swanson, in Tonight or Never (1931), and for Ina Claire in The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932). The little orphaned damsel in distress had become the great dame of haute couture.
World War II
In 1939, with the outbreak of World War II Chanel stores shut down and Coco Chanel left for Switzerland. She only came back to fashion in 1954. During the war, while residing at Hotel Ritz, she got entangled a German diplomat, Baron (Freiherr) Hans Günther von Dincklage and was even believed to be a spy.
The ravages of war forgotten, in 1954 when Coco Chanel revived her couture house it was fully financed by Chanel’s opponent in the perfume battle, Pierre Wertheimer. Here she introduced the collarless and braid-trimmed cardigan jacket and skirt suit, and the fashionable bell-bottomed pants.
The Coco Chanel legacy continues
Coco Chanel never married and had no known children. After Coco Chanel’s death in 1971, Chanel couture house once again was restored to glory by Karl Lagerfeld who took over as chief designer in 1983.
Coco Chanel’s life has also inspired theatre and films. Her life story has been told numerous times through –
- 1969: Broadway musical Coco
- 1981: Release of Film Chanel Solitaire
- 2008: Television movie Coco Chanel
- 2009: Coco Avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel) a French biographical film
- 2009: Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, French film at Cannes
Coco Chanel surmises her life in her words ‘In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different’.