Coco Chanel

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Some might be a bit surprised to find that high fashion priestess Chanel would be listed here at, as a legend we admire. After all, her fashions have been described by many as 'boxy,' and of a 'practical classic style.' Her trademark suit-and-hat ensembles imply a couture for women who aspire to be ladies, not sex kittens.

But the real fascination about Coco is what is often edited from virtually every bio about her...

Born Gabrielle in 1883, she was born in a poorhouse in Saumur, France, to a mother who worked at the poorhouse. Her mother died when Gabrielle was only six, leaving her father with five children whom he quickly abandoned ~ all 5 left to the care of relatives.

Young Gabrielle ChanelGabrielle eventually worked trimming ladies hats. While she liked the work, the wages were not enough to survive on, and the long hours or work in the poor environment were not enough to keep Gabrielle happy. So she became a became a grisette.*

By 1906 she had turned to singing in cafes. This is where she became known as Coco, for singing songs such as “Ko Ko Ri Ko” and “Who’s seen Coco in the Trocadero?”.

This is also where she met the wealthy Etienne Balsan. Soon thereafter, Coco became a ‘kept woman’ living with Balsan at his estate near Compiegne.

Often seen in riding attire, this would of course make her stand out ~ both from a fashion sense, as well as the fact that she was an accomplished horsewoman at a time when the nobility didn’t think ladies ought to ride, & if they did so, only side-saddle, not ‘like a man.’ I bet the site of a woman in riding attire, seated on a steed did much for a man’s libido. (And as is true today, seeing a woman’s curves in the restraints of male lines, well, the differences are amazing!)

There are many stories of Coco at Balsan’s estate, and other social events, wearing her own 'boyish' attire.

But they were not alone at his estate, or the other gatherings, for Balsan already had a guest, Emilienne d’Alencon. Emilienne was already a famous courtesan, a noted beauty, and all the power that comes of those titles.

One of my favorite truths in the story of Coco is how the two women got along.

Gabrielle 'Coco' ChanelOne might think that two women in this situation would be vying for Balsan’s attention & affection (if not his money), and that due to this, they would at very best dislike one another. But this is not so, not all women are ‘catty’ ~ as this story points out:

“Far from jealous, the two women admired each other, though more for their differences than what they had in common.

The difference was clear in the way they dressed. While d’Alencon, one of the last grandes horizontales had a lavish style, Gabrielle wore simple, almost boyish, clothing. The choice was less accidental than portentous. Instead of developing a career as a courtesan, she went into another business. Convincing Balsan to lend her his apartment, she set up a hat shop in Paris. Emilienne did her friend an inestimable favor when she appeared both at Maxim’s & the races in the Bois de Boulogne wearing one of Gabrielle’s creations.” **

For those who do not know, at this time in history, the courtesan dictated fashion as celebrities do today, so Emilienne’s wearing of her hats was a major coup for Coco.

After the success of Coco’s hat shop, another lover, Boy Chapel, bankrolled her next venture: a dress shop.

Coco ChanelHer first fabrics included wool jersey, which was comfortable and easy fitting, but was not considered suitable for fashionable clothes ~ this because it was the fabric reserved for men’s underwear, and real ladies weren’t to imagine such things!

When she singed her own hair, & then cut it off in a short style, it was she who started the craze of The Bob.

Chanel was famous for popularizing pants for women. When she wore a lover’s jacket in public, the comments lead to her creation of ‘the boxy jacket.’ When she tired of carrying her handbag, she put a chain on it, and voila! The Chanel Bag was born!

This style bespoke of a practicality & it would also speak of an independence. In fact, much of Coco’s designs allowed for women’s lives ~ even it they dared to show ankles! ~ there was functionality in those clothes! When copied by the likes of Emilienne & other fashionistas of the times, the examples of beautiful women wearing clothing that allowed for such movement must have been a heady combination.

The Chanel style came to epitomize the independence women were seeking.

Where at one time Coco’s ‘practical’ styles seem to put-off a sex kitten, it now seems that Coco was really a fashion feminist.

Coco Chanel gave us many other gifts:

* She, in her infinite wisdom, gave us The Little Black Dress.

* When she received fabulous jewels from her lovers, she had copies made and gave us gorgeous costume jewels.

* With Chanel No. 5 , she gave us perfume in as much as she found a way to make it both mass produced & mass affordable.

Coco Chanel To be sure, there are things for which a sex kitten can admire about Chanel. But my favorite thing is her ability to turn situations to her advantage. Coco said it best herself when she said:

“I was able to start a high fashion shop because two gentlemen were outbidding each other over my hot little body.”

It’s a shame that the story of Coco is edited to clean & proper standards. For it was the dirty & improper which made her famous. And it is what really does make her a sex kitten legendary inspiration.

By Gracie

Sex-Kitten Chanel Fact: Katharine Hepburn starred in the 1969 Broadway musical Coco based on the life of Coco Chanel.

For more on Coco Chanel, read the tribute at Smithsonian, * Grisette: Literally ’grey dress.’ Most often used to mean a milliner’s assistant, seamstress, shop girl or other underpaid workers ~ most of which wore grey woolen cloth dresses. Since they worked for so little, had few prospects of marriage, many of these women engaged in prostitution to survive. Hence, the term had come to mean ’a woman of easy virtue.’

** Quote from The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues, by Susan Griffin. (Which is our book club book!)


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