Coco Chanel was one of the most prominent fashion designers of the 20th century. Her contribution in the development of fashion can hardly be underestimated. In fact, she revolutionized fashion in a way, since she was one of the first fashion designers who made women think of themselves first rather than think how they look for their men, which was a traditional view on female fashion at the epoch. In actuality, the significance and her great contribution in the development of fashion as well as 20th century culture at large was marked by her contemporaries as well as modern specialists. For instance, she was the only person in the field of fashion design to be named on TME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century (Charles-Roux, 145). In such a way, she gained a public approval and popularity which made her name one of the most recognizable in the fashion world.
At the same time, her life was quite difficult, especially during her early years and war time periods. In fact, she witnessed two world wars but she kept working regardless of all the problems and challenges she faced in her life. In fact, her work was her true passion she remained devoted to from her early life until the end.
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco”¯ Chanel was born on August 19, 1883. She was a second daughter of travelling salesman Albert Chanel and Jeanne Devolle in a small city of Saumur, France (Orecklin, 49). In fact, her family was poor and she was raised in poverty stricken neighborhood along with her five siblings. Remarkably, when she got her birth certificate her name misspelled “Chasnel”¯ because nobody knew how to spell Chanel correctly. As a result, the mayor of the city had to improvise and added the letter “S”¯ in her name, which later became a serious problem for her biographers, who could not trace her origin and define genealogical tree because of such an error in her name (Orecklin, 51). However, the misspelling of her name was definitely not the biggest misfortune that happened to her in her early life.
She lived in poverty and was practically of an opportunity to get a good education. Moreover, when she was twelve, her mother died of tuberculosis that provoked a serious psychological trauma for the child. At the same time, her father could not stay with the children all the time. He had to work to earn for living and to maintain the family, in which he was the only breadwinner. This is why Coco Chanel was sent to the orphanage of the Catholic monastery of Aubazine, where she spent seven years and where she received her basic education. In fact, it is in the monastery she learned the trade of seamstress. However, she did not spend all the time in the monastery. During the vacations she went to her relatives in a provincial city, where her female relatives taught her to sew with more flourish than the nuns in the monastery were able to demonstrate. In such a way, her interest, her passion to design had started to develop since her childhood as she learned to sew and gradually she became very skilful in this field. At this point, it should be said that she was apparently a gifted person since she managed to develop her skills and abilities to the extent that she became able not only to create traditional wear, but she proved to be able to experiment and find new, original solutions, which were unusual for her time (Dwight, 119). However, at the early started to demonstrate her talent, which though was immature at the epoch.
Nevertheless, her professional knowledge, to a significant extent, defined her further life, as her first job was the work at a local tailor, where she was employed at the age of eighteen as she left the orphanage. In fact, it was her first step in her professional career insignificant it seems to be, but still it was very important in regard to her future professional career since she could have hardly find a different work. Moreover, it was the only work where she could realize her full potential and implement her creative ideas while developing new wear.
At the same time, it should be said that she could not afford working at a tailor for a long time because she needed to realize her ideas and she wanted to create clothes of her own. However, she could hardly start her own business, if she had failed to meet Etienne Balsan at the tailor’s shop where Coco Chanel worked. In fact, it was an occasional encounter which though outgrew into a love affair which opened Chanel the way to a new, different and better life.
Etienne Balsan was rich and quite influential. It is during her life with Balsan, Coco Chanel started to design hats. At first, it was just a hobby which gradually transformed into a true passion for designing new clothe items, especially hats, where she grew more and more skillful. Her early works were characterized by high originality since they were quite different from traditional hats. At the same time, the high quality of her products attracted a lot of customers, while her acquaintance with Balsan allowed her to engage customers representing the upper-class of the French society (Charles-Roux, 210).
Nevertheless, her love affair with Balsan failed to evolve into a true love. At any rate, their relationships did not last for a long period of time and Coco Chanel left Balsan, moved to Paris and took over his apartment in the French capital. In 1913, she opened her first shop, where she sold fashionable raincoats and jackets. Remarkably, the originality and quality of her wear contributed to the huge success of her shop which allowed her to maintain relatively high standards of life and she became very popular in Paris, which, at the epoch, was one of the world’s centers of the fashion industry.
However, the development of her business in Paris was overshadowed by the outbreak of World War I, which started in 1914 and affected the life of the entire country dramatically (Charles-Roux, 219). Nevertheless, Coco Chanel had never stopped working and continued designing new products which still remained popular and the demand for her wear was traditionally high. But she had to stop her business in Paris because she was deprived of all her properties.
Nevertheless, Coco Chanel was not discouraged and carried on her professional work and designing became an essential part of her life.
On the other hand, she could live with her ideas only. She needed money to earn to maintain living. In this regard, the assistance of Balsan’s friend, Arthur “Boy”¯ Capel proved to be very helpful for Coco Chanel. Their friendship evolved into a love affair which made them very close and Capel helped Coco Chanel to open a new shop in Brittany, France, which, similarly to the shop in Paris, became very popular among local customers (Weber, 35). It is worth mentioning the fact that celebrated French actresses buy wear in Chanels’ shop which was very important for the promotional campaign of her shop. In fact, the interest of celebrities to her shop contributed to the growing popularity of her products and her design in France that contributed to her professional recognition, while the popularity allowed her to expand her business steadily.
Due to her popularity, she managed to introduce new women’s sportswear at her new boutique in Deauville. In such a way, she could expand her business, but, what was even more important, Coco Chanel changed the philosophy of women’s wear. To put it more precisely, her new design and new wear made women confident of the fact that they were supposed to dress for themselves but not for their men. In fact, it was a revolutionary philosophy for France as well as the entire world at the epoch of World War I, when the dominance of men was unchallengeable, while the development of feminism was still insignificant (Charles-Roux, 248). Nevertheless, the design and new philosophy of Chanel produced a significant impact on the development of fashion and the 20th century culture at large.
Remarkably, as Coco Chanel grew more and more popular she attempted to change some facts from her past. For instance, she pretended to be born in 1893, instead of 1883, while she insisted that she lost her mother at the age of six, instead of twelve. In such a way, she created a kind of tragic image of an orphan girl, who managed to achieve a tremendous success due her talent and hard work. At the same time, such manipulations with her past evoked numerous controversies which were insurmountable for her biographers. This is why some details of her biography are still quite controversial and unclear.
The 1920s were the epoch of the fast progress of Coco Chanel as a designer and her business developed successfully.
Her design was really unique and her wear was very popular in France as well as in other countries. In this respect, it is worth mentioning the fact that her acquaintance with Vera Bate Lombardi, a daughter of Adolphus Cambridge, 1st Marquess of Cambridge and Duke of Teck, became of a paramount importance for Chanel’s empire. In fact, Vera Lombardi became Chanel’s muse and public relations liaison to a number of European royal families, including the British royal family. Her acquaintance with representatives of royal families and upper-classes contributed to her empire growth in power. As a result, before World War II, Chanel’s was one of the most influential designers in Europe as well as the world, because Europe, especially Paris, where Coco Chanel resided in the Hotel Ritz Paris, was the heart of the world’s fashion design (Barringer, 28).
However, World War II forced Coco Chanel to stop her work and business. Nevertheless, she remained in Paris even during the German occupation. This period in her life was probably the most controversial because, after the war, she was repeatedly accused of collaborationism. For instance, she was suspected of having a love affair with a German officer and Nazi soy Hans Gunther von Dinklage. Moreover, she was even arrested after the war but she escaped the trial after the interference of the British royal family, but she was forced to move to Switzerland where she lived until 1954. In 1954, she returned to Paris where she renewed her work and her business, but her new collection did not have much success with the Parisians and French because they believe Chanel to be a collaborationist, which produced a negative impact on her public image.
Nevertheless, in spite of the failure in France, Chanel had open a new market, the USA, where her wear became extremely popular and the USA became her main market in the post-World War II period. On the other hand, even though the USA was the main market for Chanel’s Empire, Coco Chanel, herself, had never left Paris and stayed in this city until her death on 10 January 1971. She died at the age of 88 in her private suit in the Ritz Hotel Paris and she was buried in Lausanne, Switzerland (Charles-Roux, 341).
Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that Coco Chanel was a very influential fashion designer. She had changed the traditional view on women’s wear and she had changed the women’s philosophy in regard to the wear. She was one of the first designers who made women think of themselves above all, instead of thinking of their men when they choose the clothes. At the same time, her personality is still quite controversial because, in spite of a huge popularity before World War II, she failed to regain the popularity in France after the war.