Coco Chanel

From New World Encyclopedia

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel
Personal Information
 Name  Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel
 Nationality  Flag of France French
 Birth date  August 19, 1883
 Birth place  Saumur
 Date of death  January 10, 1971
 Place of death  Paris, France
Working Life
 Label Name  Chanel

Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel (August 19, 1883 – January 10, 1971)[1] was a pioneering French fashion designer who single-handedly launched a fashion empire that steered women away from the fussy, frilly, corseted styles of post World War I and towards understated elegance, simplicity, and comfortable chic. She was the first to introduce black as a fashion color; her versatile, semi-formal "little black dress" became a Chanel trademark and an enduring fashion standard. She also borrowed from menswear and introduced vogue sportswear and bell bottom pants for women.

Like other modernists of the 1920s, such as Diaghilev, Picasso, Stravinsky, and Cocteau, she sought a new form of self expression, one that allowed for greater freedom and creativity. An impoverished childhood provided the motivation for her to make fashion more affordable and accessible—she began with creations that she made herself. Although her popularity waned after World War II, she staged a comeback in the 1950s, partly in reaction to Christian Dior's "New Look" and went on to become one the most important figures in the history of twentieth century fashion. Her influence on haute couture was such that she was the only person in the field to be named in Time's one hundred most influential people of the twentieth century.[2]

Early life and career

She was born the second daughter of itinerant merchant Albert Chanel and Jeanne Devolle in the small town of Saumur, Maine-et-Loire, France. Her parents married in 1883, the year after she was born. She had four siblings: Two sisters, Julie and Antoinette, and two brothers, Alphonse and Lucien. A third brother died in infancy in 1891, and the difficult pregnancy ultimately led to the death of her mother in 1895. Shortly thereafter, her father abandoned the family and was not seen or heard from again. The daughters were put in the care of a Catholic monastery in the town of Moulins, where the young Chanel learned the trade of seamstress.

Some of the facts of Chanel's childhood are obscured and Chanel herself often embellished upon the details, most likely to distance herself from the pain of abandonment.[3]

At the age of twenty, she was befriended by the wealthy and well connected textile heir, Étienne Balsan, who introduced her into an upper class social circle for which she began designing elegant hats to be worn to [[horse] races. Newspapers quickly took note of her work. Balsan introduced Chanel to the "love of her life," English industrialist and sportsman, Arthur "Boy" Capel. With his financial backing, she opened her first shop in 1910, at 21 rue Cambon in Paris. A boutique in Deauville soon followed and in 1918, she moved her firm to 31 rue Cambon where her business and residence remained for the rest of her life. Capel's death in a car accident in 1919, was devastated Chanel. As a result, she became even more committed to her work and never married, although she had several highly publicized celebrity affairs.

By the time of Capel's death, the House of Chanel was reaching its height of success selling dresses for over 7,000 francs each ($2000 by today's accounting).[4]

Chanel No. 5 perfume

In 1923, Chanel began selling her trademark perfume, Chanel No. 5. Her desire was to create a perfume that was less florid than the popular perfumes of the time. She had perfume expert Ernest Beaux add real jasmine to the sample, and because she chose the fifth formula he created for her, the perfume was named accordingly. Chanel chose to market the new perfume in a simple, square, unadorned bottle that complemented her own functional style and that was a departure from the fancy perfume bottles of the era. Chanel called the perfume "a woman's scent" and it subsequently went on to become one of the most expensive in the world and the standard bearer for all others.

The Chanel look

Chanel initiated her fashion revolution by taking traditionally "poor man's" fabrics such as jersey and creating chic but comfortable clothing. Her designs were not only elegant, but they were affordable. Chanel herself embodied her look by wearing a bobbed haircut and pants to social functions. She also popularized wearing bathing suits and sunbathing in public—all revolutionary trends for the 1920s.[5]

In 1925, Chanel introduced what was to become known as the classic Chanel suit—a collarless cardigan jacket made of woven wool, with tight-fitting sleeves, braid trim, and gold buttons, matched with a plain but graceful skirt. The outfit could be complemented with costume pearls, mixed with real gems, which Chanel loved to wear herself. She was known to sometimes create her costume jewelry pieces directly on a live model since she was not adept at drawing. The following, year she created "the little black dress" that was to become a versatile staple of both day and evening wear depending on how it was accessorized. Black, usually associated with funerals, was a revolutionary color choice for that time. Although unassuming black dresses existed before Chanel, the ones she designed were considered the haute couture standard.[6]

Retirement and comeback

For more than 30 years, Chanel made the Hôtel Ritz Paris, across the street from her Rue Cambon couture house her home. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, she was strongly criticized for having an affair with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer who arranged for her to remain in the hotel. After the war she was interrogated by French officials who exonerated her, but her public image was tarnished. She lived in self-imposed exile for the next decade in Lausanne, Switzerland.[7]

In 1954, at the age of seventy, Chanel re-opened the House of Chanel and staged a comeback, stating that trends in clothing were too restrictive. She was especially critical of Christian Dior's "New Look" and said that, "There are too many men in this business, and they don't know how to make clothing for women."[8]

Although her initial reception by the critics was lukewarm, her fashion élan proved to be timeless and appealed to women worldwide once again. She was embraced by Hollywood starlets and spent much of the '50s and '60s working for various Hollywood studios, dressing the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Anne Baxter. During this time her clothing became very popular, especially in the United States.

In 1957 she received the Neiman-Marcus Award. She died on January 10, 1972 at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Prior to her death, a custom Chanel suit or gown could cost up to $12,000. Today the average cost of a Chanel suit is $5,000 and can only to be purchased at Chanel boutiques or at high-end department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue.[9]

Stage and screen

In addition to her work with high fashion, she also designed stage costumes for such plays as Cocteau's Antigone (1923) and Oedipus Rex (1937) and film costumes for several movies, including Renoir's, La Regle de Jeu.

In 1969, Chanel was portrayed on the Broadway stage by Katharine Hepburn in the musical "Coco," composed and written by Andre Previn and Alan Jay Lerner.[10]

The French actress Marie-France Pisier portrayed her in the film "Chanel Solitaire" (1981) which also starred Timothy Dalton.[11]

A play based on her life, entitled Crème de Coco, and written by William Luce, debuted in April 2007, at St. Ambrose University[12]


Coco Chanel had a talent for knowing what women wanted and they responded to the less restrictive fashion norm that she created with enthusiasm. In the 1980s, Karl Lagerfield took over the designs for Chanel fashions and has been credited with appealing to a younger clientèle, while still representing the quality and style of the original House of Chanel. The company owns 100 boutiques around the world and is still one of the most recognized names in fashion and perfume.[13]

In his book, Chanel: A Woman of Her Own, Axel Madsen says, "Coco was the Pied Piper who led women away from complicated, uncomfortable clothes to a simple, uncluttered, and casual look that is still synonymous with her name. It conveys prestige, quality, taste, and unmistakable style."[14]

A little more than a decade after her death, designer Karl Lagerfeld took the reins at her company to continue the Chanel legacy. Today her namesake company continues to thrive. Although it is privately held, it is believed to generate hundreds of millions in sales each year.[15]


  1. Chanel, Madamoiselle Chanel: The Perennially Fashionable. Retrieved October 13, 2006.
  2. Ingrid Sischy, Coco Chanel: She was shrewd, chic and on the cutting edge. The clothes she created changed the way women looked and how they looked at themselves. Retrieved September 29, 2006.
  3. "Coco Chanel," in American Decades (Gale Research, 1998).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Findagrave, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel. Retrieved June 16, 2006.
  8. "Coco Chanel," in Business Leader Profiles for Students (Gale Group, 2002).
  9., Coco Chanel:Innovator and Icon.
  10. Internet Broadway Database, Coco Chanel. Retrieved August 18, 2007.
  11., Chanel Soltaire. Retrieved August 18, 2007.
  12., Designing Woman: "Crème de Coco," at St. Ambrose University. Retrieved August 18, 2007.
  13. "Coco Chanel," in Business Leader Profiles for Students (Gale Group, 2002).
  14. Axel Madsen, Chanel: A Woman of Her Own (New York: St. James Press, 1997).
  15., Coco Chanel Biography Retrieved August 18, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own, New York: St. James Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0805016390
  • Charles-Roux, Edmonde. 1981. Chanel and Her World. New York: Vendome Press. ISBN 086565011X
  • Charles-Roux, Edmonde. 2005. The World of Coco Chanel: Friends, Fashion, Fame. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0500512167
  • "Coco Chanel." In American Decades. Gale Research, 1998.
  • "Coco Chanel." In Business Leader Profiles for Students. Gale Group, 2002.
  • Wallach, Janet. 1998. Chanel: Her Style and Her Life. New York: N. Talese. ISBN 0385488726

External links

All links retrieved January 7, 2024.


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