Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel is one of history’s most famous fashion designers. She overcame several obstacles before finding success—born out of passion and hard work. Chanel, who died 50 years ago this month, was a force to be reckoned with in the fashion industry. But there’s much more to learn about this style pioneer outside the realm of designer labels. While she’s credited with creating looks that are still popular today (little black dress, anyone?), she also got wrapped up in some nefarious business for which she was never held accountable. Let’s dive a little deeper into the life of a French woman who, to this day, has left a large legacy on women’s fashion.
Chanel spent part of her childhood in an orphanage where she learned how to sew.
Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, in 1883, to street vendor, Albert Chanel, and laundrywoman, Eugénie Jeanne Devolle, Coco Chanel had five siblings. The family was very poor and lived in a one-room dwelling in Brive-la-Gaillarde, France. Her mother died when she was a child, and while her brothers and sisters were doled out to various family members, Coco wound up at the orphanage of the Catholic monastery of Aubazine.
The religious order the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary took care of abandoned and orphaned girls and demanded that they live strict and disciplined lives without many comforts. While it wasn’t the ideal place to come of age, it’s where Chanel learned how to sew and became a seamstress, which would greatly benefit her later in life.
When she turned 18, she aged out of the system and moved to Moulins to stay at a boarding house for Catholic women. When she got older, Chanel hid her past from the public. She claimed to have lived with two aunts after her mother passed, as being impoverished and growing up as an orphan were then shameful ways of upbringing.
Chanel earned extra cash as a café singer, which led to her nickname.
While working as a seamstress, Chanel also had a side hustle: singing. The young woman spent time at a cabaret that was popular with cavalry offices. She took the stage in a Moulins pavilion, La Rotonde. Her job was to perform for the audience in between the acts. She made her money by passing a plate around the crowd, and many loved her innocent magnetism, particularly men in the military.
Two of her favorite songs to sing were “Qui qu’a vu Coco?” (“Who Has Seen Coco?”) and “Ko Ko Ri Ko”, and Coco eventually became her nickname. Chanel, however, liked to credit the name to her father. Still, others think the name translates to the French term “cocotte,” which refers to a kept woman.
Unfortunately, while people loved her youthfulness and charismatic personality, Chanel’s singing voice was simply average, and she was unable to make a career of it.
Chanel No. 5 may have been partially inspired by the man with whom she had an affair.
In her early 20s, Chanel started dating ex-cavalry officer and textile heir, Étienne Balsan. He was very wealthy and lived in château Royallieu near Compiègne. Balsan doted on Chanel and gave her everything from diamonds to gowns, providing her with a much different life than she had as a child. Yet, that didn’t stop Chanel from falling in love with, and having an affair with, Balsan’s best friend, Captain Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel, who set her up with a Parisian apartment. The couple split after nine years together, and her former lover ended up dying in a car accident a couple of years later in 1919.
Chanel launched her signature fragrance, Chanel No. 5, in 1921. The number reportedly had a special meaning to Chanel and went back to her roots at the orphanage. Every day, she went to the chapel for daily prayers. The paths were a series of circular patterns involving the number five. Other sources claim out of all the scents Chanel tried, it was the fifth one consisting of jasmine and floral fragrances that inspired the name of her infamous perfume.
The shape of the perfume bottle was reportedly based on either the toiletry bottles Capel carried in his travel bag or from the whiskey decanter he favored. Chanel’s aim was to create a delicate and exquisite glass bottle for her fragrance, and she purportedly used Capel’s possessions as her inspiration.
Coco Chanel was a Nazi spy.
During World War II, Chanel worked for Nazi military intelligence, according to declassified French government documents. As a fashion designer, she had many connections, from artists and diplomats to politicians like Prime Minister Winston Churchill. She started a relationship with Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, an officer in Abwehr, the German military intelligence, in 1940 after the Nazis took over Paris. At that time Chanel lived in Paris’ Hôtel Ritz, which served as a headquarters for the Germans.
Chanel became Abwehr Agent F-7124 in 1941, and she was directed to get “political information” during a trip to Madrid, Spain, in which she met with British diplomat Brian Wallace. She was later tasked with using her connection to Churchill in “Operation Modellhut”. After the war, Chanel testified in a French court to explain her connection to Abwehr. She claimed any involvement was just a means to get her nephew out of prison. This, at least, was true. She tried to use her influence to get André Palasse, who was imprisoned in a German stalag in 1940, released.
Chanel never paid the price for her connection with the Nazis. Following the war and some time spent away from the spotlight, she returned to the fashion industry in 1954 without any repercussions.
Chanel’s fashion ideas, including pants for women, were revolutionary.
Nearly a decade before she launched her signature fragrance, her lover, Capel, gave Chanel some money to open a small millinery shop in Deauville. She made sportswear, including jersey sweaters, hats, and sailor blouses, which became popular with wealthy women who were tired of wearing body-hugging corsets. They fully embraced Chanel’s philosophy that clothing should be luxurious but comfortable. Her simple, yet relaxed, garments were a radical but a much-welcomed departure from the social norm.
Chanel wanted women to have more freedom when it came to fashion, on the contrary to their restrictive corsets and skirts. She opted for designs that didn’t require underclothing and padding. As for her revolutionary decision to wear pants, it all came down to convenience. She reportedly visited Venice and wore pants as it was easier to travel on a gondola that way. In addition, she rightly decided that riding a horse with a long skirt was a bit cumbersome, so she donned a pair of male trousers. Chanel also reportedly wore pants instead of a swimming costume while visiting a beach resort in Deauville, because she didn’t want to expose herself.
However, later in life, the designer had some regrets about the trend and reportedly said at age 86, “I came up with them by modesty. From this usage to it becoming a fashion, having 70 percent of women wearing trousers at evening dinner is quite sad.”
Meanwhile, by the late 1920s Chanel’s company, which included her couture house, perfumes, textile mill, and jewelry empire, employed thousands of people and was worth millions of dollars.
Chanel is responsible for making suntanning popular.
Through the 19th century and early 20th century, affluent people favored pale skin. They believed anyone with brown skin was part of the lower class, which to them was unacceptable. That all changed in 1923 when Chanel took a cruise on the French Riviera and got a sunburn. When she traveled back to Paris, people took note of her altered appearance, and before long started to emulate her new look.
In a complete 180, sporting a tan became fashionable as well as a sign of wealth. Unfortunately, her accidental suntan has had some serious negative effects on society as a whole, which still resonate today. According to the FDA, there’s no such thing as a “safe” tan largely because it can cause melanoma, which is the deadliest type of skin cancer.
Chanel is also responsible for the little black dress and women’s suits.
These days, many women have little black dresses in their closets that they can throw on for a variety of events, but they weren’t always a closet staple. Before Chanel entered the fashion scene, most women wore black only to funerals or when in mourning. But Chanel wasn’t a fan of ultra-bright colors, so she decided to design a basic black dress that would become a mainstay in many women’s wardrobes. Vogue published a drawing of her calf-length black sheath in 1926, and the LBD was born.
Chanel was also one of the first designers to find inspiration in menswear or, as her official website notes, she created a wardrobe “tweaked with masculine accents.” She designed women’s suits with boxy jackets, fitted sleeves, and slimline skirts. The goal was to create outfits women could wear at the office in male-dominated industries. Celebrities such as Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Jackie Kennedy are just a few of the women who wore Chanel suits.
Chanel lived in a hotel for over 30 years.
Coco Chanel continued to work until her death at the age of 87 on January 10, 1971. She passed away at the Hotel Ritz in Paris—the place she called home for 34 years. The hotel has had a variety of famous guests over the years, including writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, Polish composer Chopin, actor Charlie Chaplin, and novelists Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway. Chanel moved into the hotel permanently in 1937 and lived in a lavish private apartment consisting of multiple suites.
She frequently used the staff entrance to gain entry into her home. And legend has it that when she traveled from the Ritz to her couture house across Rue Cambon, the hotel’s doorman would inform her employees that she was on the way, so they could spray Chanel No. 5 on the street before she arrived. However, this widely circulated tale is likely an embellishment.
Today, you can rent a 2,024-square-foot suite at the Ritz that honors Chanel. In it, you can find one-of-a-kind sketches and photographs paying tribute to one of France’s most celebrated designers. The hotel also has a spa named the Chanel Au Ritz, which provides several services and products related to Chanel.
By Noelle Talmon, contributor for Ripleys.com