Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel

With her legs crossed, hat tilted, and cigarette in hand, Gabrielle looked down on her legacy as it descended the spiral staircase one girl at a time. In the reflection of the wall’s long, paneled mirrors, she could see the first few rows of buyers, journalists, and fashion tycoons.[1]

The slits of their eyes, downturned puckers, and the occasional furrowed brow said it all. Silence seemed to bounce off the vaulted ceilings, smooth white walls, and lacquered ebony floors.[2] But there was Gabrielle, sitting as coolly as ever. Again and again she raised her boney, unsteady hand for the comforting warmth of a long drag from her cigarette.

pearls
Coco revolutionized women’s fashion by popularizing a silhouette that removed the corset. The corset came to represent women’s static place in the home. (How Coco Chanel Changed the Course of Women’s Fashion)

It was her first collection since 1939, the onset of World War II. Gabrielle, or Coco as most knew her, was 70 years old.[3] This she would deny of course. She would never admit to hard truths, let alone discuss age, her youth, and certainly not love, instead giving interviewers comical anecdotes and pithy phrases of her own invention.[4] She had laid low for some time as Dior, Balenciaga, Balmain and other men dominated the industry once more.[3] But Coco, like always, could not remain quiet and in the shadows for long.

In reply to the glamourous tight waisted skirts and contorted feminine silhouettes of “The New Look,” Coco decided it was the right moment to reopen the doors of her boutique, “Chanel Modes,” Number 21 rue Cambon, that February of 1954.[5] It was only a stone’s throw from Place Vendôme and rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré, home to Lanvin, Hermès, and Lancôme. 1

Before, corsets had limited women’s movement and made normal activities, for instance eating and breathing, difficult. Their ostentatious hats or “birds’ nests” as Coco called them, were more like giant pastries sitting on the heads of the wealthiest women in Paris. Mademoiselle Chanel never approved of these stylings.[7] “Less is more,” she would say.[19]

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bighat
Coco was 31 years old when she opened her first hat shop in the center of the Deauville resort shopping district. Women coveted the comfortable elegance of her simple sweaters, relaxed skirts, swimwear and hats which clashed entirely with women’s extravagant fashions of the previous decade (as seen above). (Elsie Massey Collection Gallery)

Coco sat proudly, poised, shoulders back, observing the models in their tweed, two-piece day suits fully lined in shades of pink, black, and white with matching buttons and coordinating chapeaux. Her usual method of cutting directly into a luxury fabric, ripping apart an imperfect seam, and stripping away superfluous details had translated quite well into this line.[8]

Memories of the men that influenced her rose to the surface. She had taken their blazers, sporty fabrics like jersey, waistcoats, shirts with cufflinks, the sailor shirts worn by Deauville’s fishermen, and so many other concepts, flipping them into women’s haute couture.[9] Shaken, she promptly muted these thoughts and returned to the present moment. 2

 

 

Her aunt Adrienne was not far away, for she and Coco had always been more like sisters, never leaving each other’s side. Adrienne, smiling at the vision of Gabrielle once again on those winding steps, was reminded of their long, turbulent past together. Visits to the convent in her youth, drunken nights at La Rotonde, extravagant soirees held by France’s elite, and so many other bittersweet memories sprung to mind.[10] Though Adrienne and Maurice were just as smitten with one another since the day that they had met, she always wondered how Coco dealt with the blow of her betrayal.

Many years ago, she had left Gabrielle behind as a solo act in the cabarets of Moulins so that she could run away with Baron Maurice de Nexon.[11] Between the singing, the tailor shop, and the men, she knew Coco could take care of herself on her own. Still, she had abandoned her niece just as their father had upon their mother’s death, leaving five children behind at an abbey in the countryside of Aubazine. Coco never did say how her mother passed, always changing the story from tuberculosis to pneumonia or sometimes, asthma. It was like Coco to embellish these dismal stories with some exciting, dramatic, or fanciful detail.[12]

Tears of shame made their way up to the corners of Adrienne’s eyes. It was most fortunate that Coco had fallen into the arms of Étienne Balsan at the cabaret. True, he was known to be a coureur de jupons, as was every wealthy cavalry officer or heir that walked through La Rotonde’s battered doors—she had chosen well, for he was both.[13] However, Balsan had proven his generosity and love in his efforts to get Coco into the finest establishments of Vichy. “My little Coco,” her always called her, since the only songs that she and Adrienne could memorize were “Ko Ko Ri Ko,” and “Qui qu’a vu Coco dans le Trocadero.” He knew it was her dream to someday be a music-hall star in Paris.[14]

Of course, Adrienne did not find out until much later that she was turned away at every audition.[14] And, after Balsan returned to his chateau in Compiègne, Coco had followed some days later without his knowing or his request. Lucky for Gabrielle, Balsan did not turn her away. She was placed in one of his many bedrooms, given food, a large bed, and her own bathtub. On top of it all, Coco had convinced him to teach her how to ride after seeing his horses race at le Prix de Royallieu.[15] She never rode sidesaddle.

flowypants
This is a photo of Coco Chanel on vacation in Deauville. (Gabrielle Chanel and Deauville)

Adrienne loved visiting them at le Chateau de Royallieu, conveniently just a carriage ride away from her baron’s estate. Balsan had often and plenty of visitors, including artists, heiresses, and famous sportsmen. One of such characters was the handsome English polo player Arthur “Boy” Capel.[16] It seemed that from the first moment that their eyes interlocked, Boy and Coco had become attached.

Though Gabrielle felt eternally indebted to Balsan, she could not withhold herself from the magnetism of Boy’s charm. Beginning in 1908, he often stole her away to spend weekends together at la Côte Fleurie in his luxury vacation home of Deauville.14 Those long, warm summer days were some of the happiest in Coco’s life.

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As it goes, paradise could not last forever. Word of an engagement with the Honourable Lady Diana Wyndham reached Coco’s ears.16 Still, she and Boy were lovers well past his marriage. What did Gabrielle care? She had been Balsan’s mistress for how many years, and he had never been faithful to her. And besides, this was France. Affairs were nothing out of the ordinary. The key was to remain discreet.

Capel understood her more than Balsan. He saw Gabrielle as a bird in a cage, perpetually longing for the day she could fly. With a bit of money, he helped her open “Chanel Modes”. And so it began. Soon enough, the mesdames would be standing outside of her shop windows in Deauville, Biarritz, and eventually Paris and London,[17] longing to wear anything touched by the mademoiselle Chanel.

The shop in Deauville had been open for less than a year when war was declared in August 1914. Paris became a grim place. Theaters shutdown and entertainment and parties were few and far between. As the war dragged on, the wealthy flocked to resorts like Deauville. 3

The First World War proved favorable for Coco, and in 1919 she woke up famous.[17] The rest, as they say, was history.

________________________________________________________

“Adrienne,” Gabrielle cooed, “what did you think?”

Jolted back into the present moment, Adrienne blinked rapidly and turned her attention to

the old woman who seemed to be coated with layers of fake pearls and diamonds.

“Honestly, it was quite lovely, sure to be a hit.”

“Oh, please. It was a disaster! Did you see their faces? No matter, get everyone together. We will begin again immediately.”

The show was over. A sea of whispers flooded the open space of Number 21 rue Cambon. Everyone rose to their feet before the last girl had even returned to the base of the steps.

As they headed out the door, Coco caught several murmurs from the crowd.

“You can hardly call that couture.”

“I believe I just watched a bunch of girls coming out of a boarding school!”

Picture1
This is a photo of Coco Chanel at Rue Cambon in 1965. (Cecil Beaton/The Genealogy of Style)

“Did you see those jewels, what a joke!”

 

And another: “Those fabrics were disgusting.”

“’Coco Chanel,’ I do not think we will hear that name ever again. It is the name of a bird or a parrot, not a designer.”

She dabbed her cigarette out. Its flame and trail of smoke exhausted, its ashes collected into a small mound at the base of her golden tray. A tall, stylish woman climbed the long staircase. Her eyes focused on Coco, she exclaimed “That was wonderful!”

Unable to find any words, Gabrielle blinked a few times before the woman took her cue to leave, saying, “America. Will. Love. You.” 4

 

Notes

1 In the beginning, when Coco’s first store opened in 1914, it was just a small hat boutique in the center of Deauville’s resort shopping district. But with a flip of a switch, all the ladies of France were flocking to get their hands on anything made by mademoiselle Chanel. In a time in which corsets and extravagant fashions were all the rage, Coco revolutionized women’s fashion by popularizing comfortable and elegant ensembles with her simple sweaters, relaxed skirts, swimwear and hats.[6]

2 “The love of her life,” Arthur “Boy” Capel, died in a tragic car accident in 1919. She once said that, “His death was a terrible blow to me. In losing Capel, I lost everything,” many years later.[3]

3 Chanel kept her shops open for France’s elite, and in 1915 she expanded into southern France. By the end of 1916, Chanel was a major force in fashion and the employer of three hundred workers.

4 Though her comeback was not well received in France, British and American customers favored her collection and Chanel once again made her way into international fame.[16] Gabrielle Chanel, ‘Coco’ Chanel, la grande couturière, died on the night of January 3, 1971 at the age of 87.[18]

 

References

[1] (Cecil Beaton/The Genealogy of Style | CC BY)

[2] Picardie, Justine. “The Secret Life of Coco Chanel.” Telegraph.co.uk. September 5, 2010.

[3] Capella, Joanne. “The Mystique of Coco Chanel Part 2.” Design & Desire in the Twentieth Century. November 06, 2014.

[4] Font, Lourdes. “L’Allure de Chanel: The Couturière as Literary Character.” Fashion Theory: The Journal Of Dress, Body & Culture 8, no. 3 (September 2004): 309.

[5] Reader, Keith, and Alex Hughes. Encyclopedia of Contemporary French Culture. London: Routledge, 1998.

[6] Davis, Mary. “Chanel, Stravinsky, and Musical Chic.” Fashion Theory: The Journal Of Dress, Body & Culture 10, no. 4 (December 2006): 433.

[7] Capella, Joanne. “The Mystique of Coco Chanel Part 2.”

[8] Font, Lourdes. “L’Allure de Chanel: The Couturière as Literary Character.” Fashion Theory: The Journal Of Dress, Body & Culture 8, no. 3 (September 2004): 309.

[9] Rosa, António Machuco. “The Evolution and Democratization of Modern Fashion: From Frederick Worth to Karl Lagerfeld’s Fast Fashion.” Comunicação E Sociedade 24, (July

2013): 82-83.

[10] Haye, Amy de la. “Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel.” LoveToKnow.

[11] Davis, 432.

[12] Picardie, Justine. “The Secret Life of Coco Chanel.”

[13] Haye, Amy de la. “Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel.”

[14] Davis, 432.

[15] Picardie, Justine. “The Secret Life of Coco Chanel.”

[16] Jones, Barbara. “Coco Chanel (Part One)”. Enchanted Manor. 15 August 2016.

[17] Davis, 433.

[18] “‘Coco’ Chanel.” In Great Lives: A Century in Obituaries, by Ian Brunskill. Collins, 2005.

[19] Driscoll, Catherine. “Chanel: The Order of Things.” Fashion Theory: The Journal Of Dress, Body & Culture 14, no. 2 (June 2010): 150.

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