August 19, 1883 – Coco Chanel:
“A Girl Should be Two Things: Classy and Fabulous.”
She became one of the most famous and recognizable women in the world. Among her many friends and lovers were Pablo Picasso, impresario Sergei Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau, and Winston Churchill. She had a 15-year affair with Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster. She was known to enjoy liaisons with women on occasion also.
She was noted as an especially intelligent, witty and original thinking woman. Picasso called her: “The most sensible woman in the world“. She was irresistibly flirty, sharp, straightforward and a bit cynical.
Through the decades the Chanel “Little Black Dress” developed into the classic choice for women. It has been often copied, redesigned and re-tailored. New versions continue to appear. I can confidently say that this dress will never go out of style.
Growing up, her family did not have a permanent place to live. For a while they stayed in an abandoned shack on a primitive farm. Her mother was a laundrywoman, and her father was a street vendor who tellingly sold hats.
Chanel was afraid that reporters would find out about her childhood: Her parents lived together without being married; her mother died of bronchitis when she was 31; her father simply gave her to an orphanage when she was 12 years old. Chanel often claimed that when her mother died, her father sailed to America, and that she lived in a lovely house with two very strict aunts, who, never did exist. It wasn’t the only way Chanel worked to reinvent herself. She said that the year of her birth was 1893. She probably considered that her stories created an alluring sense of mystery, but Chanel didn’t need mystery. She had style, and that was more than enough.
She learned to sew in the orphanage and when she was 16 year old, Chanel found a job as a seamstress.
In the summer of 1920, Chanel opened a shop in the resort town Biarritz where she met a Russian émigré, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich. Their romance was short but important. Pavlovich introduced Coco to a Russian perfumer, Ernest Beaux, who had worked for Russia’s Imperial Court.
Chanel with Dmitriy Pavlovich, 1920, Wikimedia Commons:
The meeting was eventful for both of them. After a year of hard work and many experiments, Beaux placed ten samples in front of Chanel, dividing them into two groups. The first half Beaux numbered from one through five, the second from 20 through 24. Chanel chose the sample No. 5 and when Beaux asked her why, Chanel replied:
“I always launch my collection on the fifth day of the fifth month, so the number 5 seems to bring me luck, therefore, I will name it: No. 5.“
The list of clients who wore Chanel No. 5 perfume included the most beautiful women of the century. Chanel No. 5 was a favorite perfume of Jacqueline Kennedy. The perfume continues to be the ultimate symbol of classy sensuality. Kennedy’s nemesis Marilyn Monroe said:
“What do I wear in bed? Why, Chanel No. 5, of course.“
Chanel No. 5 is still the best-selling perfume in the world.
When World War II broke out in Europe, Chanel closed her shops. She declared that wartime was no a time for fashion. Her connections with the Nazis, mostly because of her affair with a German SS officer, Walther Friedrich Schellenberg, made a dent in the love from her fans in France. About her loyalties Chanel said:
“My heart is French, my bottom is international.“
But, Chanel was back after the war, more popular than ever. She was driven by a decided distaste for the new fashions of the 1940s and early 1950s. This era brought the introduction of the Chanel Handbag: quilted leather with a gold chain with the familiar Chanel logo featured prominently. It remains an enduring classic. The handbag’s basic look hasn’t changed substantially over the decades, and it’s still a status symbol today.
Chic women responded favorably to her classic suit with its slim skirt and boxy jacket. But, it took a while for the Chanel look to take off in the USA, but she got a big boost in the early 1960s when Jacqueline Kennedy was spotted sporting Chanel. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, his wife was wearing a double-breasted pink Chanel wool suit.
Chanel left this world in January 1971. She went quietly in her hotel room at The Ritz with a view of The House of Chanel. After her passing, Chanel’s friends found only three dresses in her closet.