An infant is born in a poor house in 1883, the illegitimate child of street peddlers. When she is twelve she is sent to a strict convent-orphanage in the barren French countryside and ends up as the epitome of high French style, her clothing the hallmark of refinement and craftsmanship, employing 2,000 in her couture fashion workroom. This is the kind of woman I find myself admiring.
At twenty three, Coco Chanel became the paramour of the wealthy ex-cavalry officer Etienne Balsan, and when introduced to his riding partner “Boy” Capel, she became his lover as well. The two men, the first in a long run of passionate and no so passionate love affairs, set her up into her initial stint in the fashion world as a milliner.
Ambitious, confident, ahead of her time in both her fashion ideology and what she believed a woman in her day could achieve, Chanel took women out of crinolines and put them in pants, knit sweaters and short pleated skirts. She gave us the turtleneck and the turned back cuff. She invented costume jewelry and made it chic to wear junk with real diamonds. Ever the innovator, Chanel created a 20th century woman never before seen in the Paris of the 1920s and 30s. Inspired by the sailors in San Tropez—pre-Chanel, a remote fishing village—she donned their bell bottom trousers and crewneck sweaters.
Pale skin prized, women hid from the sun. Chanel came back from a cruise with one of her lovers, bronze as a baby shoe, and all of Paris lay down and baked. Her influence was enormous. She designed costumes for the Ballet Russe and when Samuel Goldwyn beckoned her to Hollywood to dress the stars, she refused… till he offered her $1 million for a few weeks of work, the equivalent of $14 million today.
Slim and determined, a woman on the go, she personified the Roaring Twenties and dressed wealthy women in garments they could slip into without the aid of a maid. Out with those innumerable tiny covered buttons—think wedding dresses—in with her “little black dress” that cost a fortune and had Parisian high society flocking to The House of Chanel at 31 rue Chambon.
She originated the pill-box hat to go with her long-sleeved crepe de chine frocks, and jersey for outer clothing (prior to Chanel, jersey was used only for underwear), and to casually fling over one of her sleeveless numbers, the boa. She gave us cardigans, flap pockets and quilted leather. She made her costumes in men’s gray and navy blue, haberdashery colors signifying the boldness of the feminine character.
Everything she did was different, including the perfume that Marilyn Monroe said was all she wore to bed. Cloaked in drama—a Chanel cloak to be sure—the formula was shrouded in secrecy and said to have been stolen from another company. The scent, not flowery like other perfumes of the time, but deep and with musky notes, the way Chanel thought women should be scented. The shape of the bottle was a complete leave-taking from the rounded form and the cherub and floral-topped flacons of the reigning scents. Chanel’s bottle was a chunky rectangle with a prominent black and white label—No 5, her lucky number.
A heightened sense of excitement about her, she was the toast of the French tabloids—their bread and butter in fact, always causing a sensation—what she wore to the party she gave or went to, who she was with and what they said. She ate it up, loving the attention.
She bedded Picasso and hunted wild boar with Winston Churchill, who in a letter to his wife said, “…she is very agreeable—really a great strong being, fit to rule a man and an empire.
A bundle of contradictions and secrets, she constantly reinvented herself, and the tales she told about her life, past and present, were filled with inconsistencies. Charming one minute, volatile the next, she was sexually adventurous—was said to have had women as lovers—but she openly hated gays. A known anti-Semite, she call Goldwyn “that little Jew,” and chose men who were likeminded. There was her boyfriend, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage or, “Spatz” as his pals called him, a Nazi intelligence agent who posed as a sun-worshipping tennis man while building an espionage operation to spy on the French navy at their Toulon base, and the Duke of Westminister, “Bendor” to those in the know, who, after one too many whiskeys in front of a Rothschild said, “I cannot bear those bloody Jews.”
I was disappointed to discover this prejudicial side of her, the way I’m disappointed when I find an actor I admire saying something stupid and making a fool of themselves on a TV talk show. Then I’m not only disenchanted, but annoyed with myself for thinking that they’re the person they played in a movie, the person I looked up to and believed them to be. Let down, I also feel a bit like the teenage girl in “The Blatts,” a short story in my collection Alterations, who envies her friend’s more sophisticated family till the father makes a drunken pass at her. There is no drunkenness here, though Chanel did routinely do drugs—she was addicted to a form of morphine.
Given it all, I still admire her determination, the scope of her creativity and her many accomplishments in a time when a woman of her beginnings could only hope to end up as the wife of a shopkeeper. But, like the envied friend in my story, Coco has “lost some of her shine.”
Alterations is a collection of stories written over a period of twenty years, some of them harking back decades before, told through the eyes of a child growing up in Brooklyn, New York, walking with her mother as she did her errands and talked to the shopkeepers along 86th street, the El rumbling above them. Little girls and adolescents, a teenager, a father, a son, grown women, a whole slew of characters altered by their experiences, linked by family. Families of different types and mindsets, families that are broken and those that are healing. And it was to that enduring notion of family life, with all its messy complications, its intrigues and dramas, its loving and sometimes mysterious bonds, that I dedicated Alterations in memory of my parents, Molly and Max Weingarten.
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Rita Plush is an author, interior designer, lecturer and teacher of the decorative arts. She is the author of the novel, Lily Steps Out (Penumbra Publishing 2012)