Exemplars: Coco Chanel

Reminders of this fashion icon–arguably the first fashion icon–are everywhere in Paris. Under the obvious category are her boutiques, the ‘CC’ logo on billboards, and the fashion pilgrims who line up outside Angelina Cafe, her habitual haunt later in life, to pay homage. They wait to take a seat, breathe in the elegant air, sip a latte, and, if they’re lucky, sit at what was her regular table (good luck with that).

Subtler is the easy, elegant attitude that seems to have been absorbed into the DNA of French women; one could easily credit Coco Chanel for the most definitive, modern expression of this, if not its creation. Happy Birthday, Gabrielle. Bien joue.  

Coco Chanel is the founder and namesake of the iconic Chanel fashion brand. She’s also acknowledged to be the first ‘influencer’ in women’s fashion, as well as the first person to take a ‘selfie’.

Glamorous as her later life appeared to the public, it didn’t start out that way.  After her mother’s death, young Gabrielle was sent to an orphanage. Life for children there was harsh and accommodations spartan. It was, however, where she would learn to sew, a skill that would change her life, as well as the world of fashion.

Success came early after she constructed a dress from an oversized jersey sweater. When asked about where she got the dress by several people, being a savvy business woman, she capitalized on the opportunity and offered to make dresses for them. The cut was stylish, the color choice was bold for that time, associated only with periods of mourning. But Mademoiselle Chanel had a vision, and the ‘little black dress’ was born.

Declaring that, “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury,” she liberated women from the constraints of the “corseted silhouette” and introduced a sporty, casual chic as the feminine standard of style immediately after World War I. This clean, classic, and comfortable style of dress that has endured for almost a century made her famous around the world, and very rich. Still, she wasn’t satisfied. 

In the 1920s, Coco Chanel, as she was then known, launched her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, the first to feature a designer’s name. Perfume “is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion. . . . that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure,” she once explained.

A prolific fashion creator, Mademoiselle Chanel extended her influence beyond couture clothing, expanding her design aesthetic to include jewelry and accessories, many marked with her famed interlocked-CC monogram.

The Depression of the 1930s and the outbreak of World War II forced her to close her once-thriving business. Rumors of her romantic involvement with a Nazi military officer during the occupation badly damaged her reputation. While never formally charged with collaborating, the charges nevertheless resonated with French citizens. She was convicted in the court of public opinion and went into self-imposed exile in Switzerland. But she was not finished.

At age 73 she made a triumphant return to the world of fashion with a line of timeless designs that wowed the public, even if they were initially panned by the critics. She worked relentlessly until her death in Paris at age 87.

If you love fashion and think you might want a career in the field, or if you want to ‘start over’ at any age, read more about the life of Coco Chanel.

“I don’t do fashion. I am fashion.” – Coco Chanel

9 thoughts on “Exemplars: Coco Chanel

  1. I’m surprised that this close to the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris that you’d feature Coco Chanel. I’m actually rather surprised you’d feature her at all.

    1. Thanks, Cozy. I understand your comment and appreciate your perspective. I replied to a another comment that came in, also questioning my decision to profile Coco Chanel. (I have no way of knowing if you read it or not.) As I said in that previous reply, I was focusing on her business accomplishments and contributions to fashion and culture.

      I think it’s important to restate this also: cooperating with, doing business with, enabling, assisting, or promoting the political agenda of a totalitarian regime and/or brutal dictator is ugly business. Especially a regime that murders journalists and political opponents.

      It’s easy to cherry pick from history, as I said. I think a more productive exercise is to look around today and call out such behavior as it is happening, without fear or favor. Thank you again for your comment, and I hope you’ll continue to be a part of the conversation.

      We disagree all the time here. Your comment was thoughtful and polite. That’s appreciated. – BGT

  2. Thank you, now I know the namesake of the scent my wife has me wear, Chanel égoïste. Two ladies I’m in awe of is Hedy Lamarr (Inventor of technology that is the basis for Wifi and Blue tooth) and Margaret Hamilton who wrote the software for the Apollo mission guidance computers.

  3. Byron, I’ve been hesitating for days about leaving this comment. But, because I usually love reading your writing, and I value and respect the community you’ve built here, I wanted to leave my two cents, for what they’re worth.

    This post, right here, really epitomises what I despise about the “gender-positivity” movement that has been gaining steam these last few years.

    It is well known, and well documented, that Coco Chanel was an antisemite and a Nazi supporter. She also maintained close friendships with war criminals, even after the war. (For example, she provided financial support to Schellenberg, and his family, who was convicted at the Nuremberg trials.) By many accounts, the only reason Chanel wasn’t tried and convicted as well was that she happened to be having sex with the right person (or people).

    I have a daughter. I would be appalled if she ever looked up to Coco Chanel.

    I hope she has the sense to recognise virtue and greatness in whatever guise it appears, whether male or female.

    Your recent post about life in the famous cafes of Paris was fantastic. Please keep up the great work you’re doing, and take my feedback with a pinch of salt.

    1. Thank you, Mark. I appreciate the diplomatic and measured response, and I understand your perspective on this aspect of Coco Chanel. My focus was intended to be on her accomplishments in business and contributions to fashion. I think Melissa’s comment about people being ‘messy’ is a valid one. As a friend and neighbor to a couple of aging Parisians who risked their lives doing work for the French Resistance during WWII, I fully appreciate the menace of the Nazis, even more now than I did before living here. I won’t try to rationalize or minimize Coco Chanel’s behavior.

      I think we must really consider how we address and respond to those people who cooperate with, enable, do business with, promote, or otherwise offer assistance to totalitarian regimes and brutal dictators. It is one thing to do this with historical figures like Coco Chanel, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington (who both owned slaves), and even Ronald Reagan–who was recently revealed on audio tape to be making quite racist comments to Richard Nixon.

      It’s quite another to recognize and acknowledge this behavior in the present day. Profits and partisan politics cloud even the most objective of judgments and often leave one grasping for rationales and excuses. Thank you again, Mark. Much appreciated. – BGT

  4. Coco Channel lived in difficult times. No matter what one might think of her personal life, she is still being talked about 48 years after her death because of her contributions. It would be wonderful if life was as black and white as your comment, Mark but it is not. Life is messy. It is easy to sit back and judge what someone else did from my chair reading about them on the Internet. I cannot image (and I hope I don’t have to in my lifetime) what it must have been like to try and survive a world wide war. I can’t imagine every decision I would make would measure up to other people’s personal convictions, but I hope to be shown mercy for my mistakes.

  5. I didn’t know these facts about Chanel re: Nazis. Thank you for providing the forum for these comments to occur.

    On another note, in regards to luxury being comfortable, could you share some specific examples for women’s wear that not only look good but are truly comfortable, especially shoes. I have a hard time finding any that look nice in the style of an OMG but are also comfortable, especially for a situation like walking around Paris all day. For that matter, are there any stylish women’s shoes where I could actually get away with actually wearing socks (note: it seems like women never wear socks, even in their tennis shoes).

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