Saturday, August 15, 2009
Heroine of the Weekend
Next week, on August 19, it will be the birthday of Coco Chanel! That makes her the Heroine of the weekend.
Chanel was born August 19, 1883 in the poorhouse of the small town of Saumur, Maine-et-Loire, the second daughter of Jeanne Devolle and the traveling salesman Albert Chanel (her parents didn't marry until later that year, though she ended up with 5 siblings). When she was 12, her mother died of tuberculosis, leaving Coco to spend 7 years at the orphanage of the convent of Aubazine, where the nuns taught her to sew (and also taught her the power of black-and-white outfits!). At 18, she left the convent and took a job with a local tailor.
She soon met and started an affair with French playboy and millionaire Etienne Balsan, who supported her and indulged her "hobby" of designing and selling hats. She opened her first shop in 1913 in Paris. It soon went out of business, but Chanel wasn't discouraged. She met up with Balsan's (former) best friend Arthur "Boy" Capel, and fell in love with him (she would later say he was the one love of her life, despite later relationships with such men as the Duke of Westminster). He helped her open a second hat shop in Brittany, and her hats were soon worn by celebrated French actresses and singers, which gained her much publicity. She also introduced women's sportswear at a new boutique at Deauville, along with a new idea--women were supposed to dress for themselves, not for me. Out with hobble skirts and huge hats--in with jersey skirts and sweaters! Her look became the keynote of the 1920s and '30s.
In 1923, she said in a magazine interview, "Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance." Even today, the epitome of luxury is a perfectly tailored Chanel jacket, a quilted bag and pair of ballet flats, and a bottle of Chanel No. 5 (introduced in 1921, and a bestseller ever since).
Coco Chanel died in Paris on January 10, 1971 in her private suite at the Ritz (where she had lived on and off since a rather ignominious period in World War II) and was buried in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Some great sources include:
Chanel: A Woman of Her Own, Axel Madsen
Chanel and Her World, Edmonde Charles-Roux
Different Like Coco, Elizabeth Matthews (a fun childrens' book with lovely illustrations!)
(There's also the movie Coco Avant Chanel, coming out soon, starring Audrey Tautou...)