The real Coco Chanel

A biopic of 'Mademoiselle' Chanel is set to be one of the movie hits of the summer. John Lichfield reports on an icon who prospered in Nazi-occupied France

It is difficult to disapprove completely of the woman who invented the little black dress. And trousers for women. And sportswear as a fashion statement. And the sun tan. But there were many shadows in the long life of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel. Not all of them are revealed in the French bio-pic of her early life which opens in Britain this Friday.

"Mademoiselle" Chanel was a public figure for more than half a century but she was also a compulsively secretive woman. She had much to be secretive about, including her flirtation – and, in the case of one senior German officer, her love affair – with the Nazis.

The understated Chanel style twice transformed the world of fashion, once in the 1920s and then again in the 1950s. "There is nothing so beautiful as emptiness," she said. But her advocacy of simplicity and sombre colours (and especially black) was also, it appears, a cloak for her own personal tastes and especially her taste for secrecy.

For many years "Mademoiselle" Chanel had a flat over her "workshop" in the Rue Cambon in Paris, where she spent every afternoon alone before returning to her suite in the nearby Ritz Hotel. When she died in 1971, aged 87, her private retreat turned out to be a riot of violent colour and Rococo sophistication, things that the public "Mademoiselle" Chanel claimed to despise. It was as though Pablo Picasso (a close friend) had been caught out with a secret stash of sentimental, 19th-century watercolours.

The movie Coco before Chanel, starring Audrey Tautou as the great woman, sidesteps most of this biographical untidiness by following only Gabrielle Chanel's early life.

She was born in Saumur on the Loire in 1883, not 1893 as she sometimes claimed. Gabrielle liked to say that her father was a businessman who left to seek his fortune in America. Albert Chanel was, in fact, a peddler who abandoned his family.

When her mother died, Gabrielle was 12 years old and she and her two sisters were placed in an orphanage. At 18, she moved to a convent where she was employed as a seamstress, a skill which would eventually make her one of the most influential women of the 20th century.

She initially tried to make her fortune as a music hall singer in a theatre in Vichy frequented by army officers and other wealthy young men. It was here that she acquired her nickname and the first of the two lovers who would help her achieve fame and fortune. There are several versions of the origin of her nickname. The most plausible is that, while she was a singer, her most popular act was a brainless song called "Qui qu'a vu Coco dans l'Trocadero".

The young Coco was a beautiful, slender woman, not unlike Audrey Tautou in looks. She had several lovers, culminating in a semi-official appointment as the second mistress of Etienne Balsan, a wealthy young man who bred horses. Although the relationship did not last long, it introduced her to high society and led to a long, sincere and very successful romantic and business partnership with an Englishman living in France, Arthur "Boy" Capel. Although Capel refused to marry her, he remained faithful, in his way, until his death in 1919.

He and Balsan helped to set her up, originally, in a hat-making business. She also became celebrated in the wealthy horse-racing world before the 1914-18 war for her revolutionary style of dress: no coloured silk and frills and, flowery hats but a slender, schoolgirl look in whites and blacks and, unthinkably, trousers or jodhpurs.

In 1910, Boy Capel loaned her the money to set up her first fashion salon in the heart of Paris. Her "new silhouette" designs for women – taking ideas and materials from menswear and sportswear for the first time – boomed in the anti-establishment mood after the war. The "flapper look" of the independent young women of the 1920s, including the slender figure and short hair, was mostly a Coco look.

Traditionalists accused her of "luxurious miserabilism", but she expressed in fashion the ideas of the modern movement. The secret of her success was, she said, "always to remove and to pluck, never to add. The greatest beauty is the freedom of the body".

Coco Chanel became such an icon that everything she did was copied. Until the 1920s, pale skins for women had been the vogue. When she returned accidentally sun-tanned from a holiday beside (of all places) the North Sea, the fashion changed. She was the first clothes designer to launch her own perfumes, including Chanel No 5 in 1921. Much of the investment, and the profits, for her perfume business belonged to a pair of Jewish entrepreneurs called the Wertheimer brothers. During the Second World War – one of several shadows on her reputation – "Mademoiselle" Chanel tried to use the anti-Semitic laws of the Vichy government to claim the business for herself.

When the Germans entered Paris in June 1940, Coco closed her fashion house and moved into the Ritz. She had a comfortable war in the arms of a convinced Nazi and intelligence officer, Hans Gunther von Dincklage. She was even involved in a hare-brained attempt to negotiate a separate British-German peace in 1943.

When France was liberated in 1944, hundreds of French women had their heads shaved and were paraded through the streets for alleged "collaboration horizontale" with the Germans. They were mostly poor women or prostitutes. Few rich women were attacked. Partly through pulling strings with friends in the British royalty and aristocracy, Coco avoided both official and unofficial punishment and fled, in disgrace, to Switzerland.

She relaunched her Paris fashion house in 1954 driven by her hatred of Christian Dior and the "New Look". She accused him of restoring the 19th-century ideal of women as pretty objects for the comfort of men. A woman sitting down in a Dior dress, she said, looked like "an old armchair".

Her business and influence boomed once again, the pink suit worn by Jackie Kennedy in Dallas on the day of her husband's assassination in 1963 was a Chanel creation. But most of her post-war customers and admirers were foreign.

The French never quite forgave "Mademoiselle" Coco, the woman who preached simplicity, for living an elaborately luxurious war in the arms of a German officer.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent