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Coco Chanel, the First Lady of Fashion: A Biography

04-03-2016  BY

We all know of the little black dress (LBD) and how it should be a staple in every woman’s wardrobe. We also know of Chanel, one of the most prestigious and innovating fashion houses in the world, synonym to impeccable style and taste. So maybe it’s time we had a little conversation about the woman who made this - and so much more! – possible, Coco Chanel.

Without a shadow of a doubt the single most influential female fashion designer of the 20th century, Coco remains to this day adored. She basically revolutionized the fashion industry, liberating women from the frills and tight corsets of the Edwardian era.

What Miss Chanel did was reshape our concept of “elegance.” And in doing all these things, she basically achieved something precious for the women: freedom, although she was not exactly a feminist.

A rough start in life

And it is that which makes much more amazing the fact that the world's most avant-garde fashion designer was a woman who had to start from scratch and build her way to the top in a world dominated by men. Coco was born on the 19th of August, 1883, in the small city of Saumur, Maine-et-Loire, France, as an illegitimate daughter of a traveling salesman. Years later, she would do her best to cover up the true facts about her childhood - for example, she would later claim having been born in 1893.

Her childhood was far from happy: Chanel's mother died when she was only 12, and her father left. So the little girl had to spend seven years in an orphanage. Something good did come out of this: she learned the trade of a seamstress.

Years after that, she would become a cabaret singer and the mistress of some really wealthy men. Helped by them, Coco opened her first shop, a boutique, and a Couture House.

The Chanel staples

Gradually, she became one of the most influential designers around, and with just cause: her clothes were marked by simplicity and elegance. She introduced the legendary little black dress, which could be worn throughout the day or at night, depending on accessories. This illustrated the quintessential Chanel philosophy that fashion should be functional.

The other clothing item introduced by this French lady that made history was the Chanel suit, which was comprised of a knee-long skirt and boxy jacket worn with large pearl necklaces.

This was a turning point in women's lives: they no longer felt the pressure to dress in uncomfortable gowns. Coco had gained for them the right to dress as they pleased. She introduced a completely new type of femininity, or in other words, she reshaped this term. Her boyish ensembles were contrasting the Belle Époque millinery that Chanel overtly despised - “How can a brain function under those things?”

In 1921, she introduced on the market a new fragrance that was to become one of the best-sold perfumes in the world, the famous Chanel No. 5. In an era when women were expected to be all pretty and covered in floral scents, a woman dared to create something completely different - an artificial perfume that reflected her “personality, something abstract and unique.”

Years later, Marilyn Monroe was so fascinated by this product that she used to sleep wearing only “two drops of Chanel No. 5” (as she would unabashedly boast).

Coco’s controversial life

As far as her personal life goes, Coco was always plagued by controversy: she had affairs with some of the most influential men at the time (including Etienne Balsan, Paul Iribe, Duke of Westminster, Grand Duke Dmitri of Russia or Boy Capel) but she never married any of them.

She was indeed the ultimate independent woman, and she knew her value. One time she was asked why she hadn't married the well-to-do Duke of Westminster, and she replied, “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.”

People were also scandalized by her affairs with women, but Coco couldn't care less, and she truly lived her life despising and breaking all the traditionalist tenets. Let's not forget that she was not a stranger to lesbian affairs in a time when that was by no means permitted.

In her spare time, she used to be a muse for all of the leading edge artists. Chanel was an inspiration for Diaghilev, Picasso, Stravinsky and Cocteau, the last of whom was such a big fan that he would later declare, “she has, by a kind of miracle, worked in fashion according to rules that would seem to have value only for painters, musicians, poets.”

However, her popularity faded during the World War II, when she became involved with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer. People could never forgive her for being a Nazi supporter.

The woman that forever changed the fashion industry and our conception of style died at the age of 88 in her room at the Ritz Hotel, with her maid by her side. Her legacy will remain with us as Chanel's words will sum up one woman's vision: “Fashion passes, style remains.”

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