Women’s History Month: Coco Chanel

Written by: Emily Vargo

In today’s world, fashion is everywhere. To most of us, the style has become a part of our way of life, and we couldn’t even imagine life without it.

However, over the years, fashion designers have had to break down barriers to have the life of fashion we have today. One fashion designer did just that and is still an icon today, and her name is Coco Chanel.

Chanel was born in Saumur, France, on August 19, 1883. Chanel’s real name is Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel. When you think of Coco Chanel, you may think she grew up in a wealthy family and had a wonderful childhood, but that wasn’t the case. Chanel’s mother was a laundrywoman, and her father was a street vendor that always traveled. Chanel was one of six children, and they all grew up in a run-down one-room home.

At the age of 11, Chanel’s mother passed away. The children did not attend school, and Chanel was sent to an orphanage with her two sisters while her two brothers were sent to work.

Chanel was sent to the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary, which was found to care for the “poor and rejected.” It was not a great place to grow up, but this is where Chanel learned to sew, which is crucial for her future career.

At the age of 18, Chanel went to live at a boarding house for Catholic girls in a town called Moulins. Chanel found a job as a seamstress, and on the side, she sang in a cabaret. While singing at the cabaret, this is where Chanel inherited the name Coco because she often sang, “who has seen Coco.” However, even though Chanel tried to have a singing career, her voice didn’t cut it.

At the age of 23, Chanel met Etienne Balsan, an ex-cavalry officer. Chanel became Balsan’s mistress and lived with him for three years. Chanel experienced the “rich life” and lived in luxury during this time.

In 1908 Chanel had an affair with one of Balsans friends, and this person installed an apartment in Paris for Chanel and started her first shop. It is also believed that Chanel No. 5 was based on this man.Their affair lasted for nine years until he married another woman and then died in a car crash in 1919. His death was devastating to Chanel, and she would later say the day he died, she lost everything.

In 1910 Chanel opened a boutique where she designed hats and some clothing. Her business took off in 1912 when an actress named Gabrielle Dorzait wore one of her hats in a play. In 1913 Chanel opened another store for deluxe casual clothing suitable for leisure and sports. In 1915 Chanel opened another store in Biarritz, dedicated to wealthy clients, leading to an award in 1919, where Chanel was registered as a couturière.

Chanel would meet famous people throughout the years and spend time with British aristocrats and those in high society. In the years to come, Chanel would be in many affairs and controversies but was admired by many due to how true she was to herself.

However, there was a time when she almost lost it all. During World War II, Chanel closed all of her stores, leaving 4,000 women without a job, and she made it publicly clear that she did not like the Jews. She was also a mistress to someone high up in the Nazi ranks and was described as having “Hailed Hilter’.

During this time, she had legal battles over her perfumes, and the controversial ties with the Nazi party made many questions her loyalty and intentions. She gained complete control of her perfumes and earned war fair profits of her No. 5 perfume. In 2014 it would be revealed that Chanel was a spy for the Germans during World War II.

In 1954 Chanel came back with a comeback in fashion design. Even though no one forgot her controversies, everyone fell in love with Chanel again. In Paris, France, on January 10, 1971, Chanel passed away at the age of 87 due to an illness.

*Editor’s note–The anti-sematic actions of Coco Channel are abhorant and The Defender does not condone this behavior.

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