Biography of Coco Chanel: Fashion Leader, Nazi Informant, Compulsive Liar

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Final Research Paper May 3, 2012 Fashion Leader, Nazi Informant, Compulsive Liar: Coco Chanel (1918-1945) Agent F-7124, code name: Westminster. To those of you who were not involved with German Military Intelligence during World War II, you may know Agent F-7124 as Coco Chanel. Chanel has been one of the top names in high end fashion for almost one hundred years but the woman behind the brand has a shocking past that would make any customer think twice before a purchase. Chanel herself once said during the German Occupation of France, “For a woman betrayal has no sense—one cannot betray one’s passions1. Chanel held this statement true through three affairs with Nazi officers during World War II, an affair with a French textile heir who introduced her to an English aristocrat who conveniently funded her first two boutiques in Paris2. In short, Chanel slept her way to the top of the fashion industry. Nonetheless, in 1926 the October issue of American Vogue Magazine credits Chanel with standardizing fashion in a caption under her signature black dress, “Here is a Ford signed Chanel—the frock that all the world will wear. ”3 And they did; by 1935 Chanel was selling 28,000 designs worldwide. Coco Chanel was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in 1883 in Paris, France and was the second child to an unwed mother. Years later her parents would marry and have five more children. When Chanel was 12 years old her mother died and her father took Chanel and her six siblings to a convent for orphans where nuns would raise them until they reached age 18. At the convent Chanel learned to sew and was able to find work as a seamstress when she left. Living on her own, Chanel started to sing in a cabaret where she adopted the stage name Coco.

Military officers and upper class members of society frequented the cabaret and Chanel met textile heir Etienne Balsan. Balsan introduced her to Captain Arthur Capel; Capel would buy her an apartment in Paris and finance her first two boutiques. Chanel began by designing hats, then women’s wear, and eventually perfume. 5 As Chanel made her way into the upper class she frequently fabricated her background to hide that she came from such humble beginnings. Chanel has stated in some interviews that she was an only child and has never publically acknowledged that she was raised in an orphanage.

Author Louise de Vilmorin once suggested to Chanel that she see a psychiatrist about the constant need for fabrication. Chanel replied, “I, who never told the truth to my priest? ”6 There is no doubt that Chanel is recognized as an innovator of women’s fashion during the 1920s. Women cut their hair and stepped out of their corsets. They wore clothes that gave them a waif-like silhouette shape, which was a stark contrast to the curvy, maternal shape previously connected with femininity. Women also stopped protecting their skin from sunlight and began to tan.

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The changes in women’s fashion were said to make women feel liberated and in charge of their own fate, but whether fashion had the ability to actually liberate women is questionable. Historian Mary Louise Roberts wrote that fashion was a highly charged issue in the early 1920s. “Every aspect of female dress had not only changed but come mirror opposite of what it had been in 1900. ”7 This new style for women was criticized and opposed by traditional conservatives, Catholics, journalists, and most men.

The critics felt like gender lines were becoming blurred and women were no longer interested in becoming mothers; which they felt was the ultimate goal for a woman. Roberts also wrote that this new fashion was not a marker of social change rather a maker. 8 This interpretation from Roberts is very common among historians on fashion in the 1920s. Elsa Herrmann wrote that women were finally finding substance in their life, “Women were making goals and this period awakened them from their lethargy and laid upon them the responsibility for their own fate. 9 Feminist historians Caroline Evans and Minna Thornton write that fashion during this time offered women the opportunity to express themselves in a passive manner. The women suggest that it was a way for women to step into the fine arts that have been dominated by men for years. Fashion was also a way for women to use their creativity and become businesswomen. 10 Francois Baudot highlights the success of Chanel’s fashion career in connection with the feeling of women’s liberation: Thousands of women now began to realize that ‘poor chic’ could be the answer to social snobbery.

The Chanel look, with its lines reduced to their simplest expression, shows that how clothes are worn is much more important than what is worn; that a good line is worth more than a pretty face; that well-dressed is not the same as dressy, and that the acme of social cachet was to be proletarian. 11 Baudot is suggesting that this fashion movement started by Chanel actually broke down the class barriers that had been in place in France for centuries. Should Coco Chanel be given sole credit for this powerful new image of women? 12 We must ask ourselves: what other factors influenced a social change this large?

It could be said that World War I had an enormous impact on this change in women’s fashion and their feeling of liberation. Throughout this paper I will discuss how World War I gave Chanel the opportunity to start her empire. I will then focus on how Chanel was able to stay an upper class, successful women despite her treatment of the people she employed, her anti-Semitism, and affairs with Nazi officers. To fully understand Chanel’s actions one must be briefed on the context of each one. During WWI men left their families and jobs to fight. Women had no choice but to provide for their families.

The brutality of World War I made the chances of spouses returning very low. France lost 81,000 military men during WWI. 13 Women in the workplace manufactured war goods and faced extremely poor conditions and were often killed themselves. 14 WWI broke down the gender barrier so that women like Chanel could make a name for themselves and express themselves more freely. Historians acknowledge the rise in consumer culture and credit Chanel as ‘the’ female liberator and this image was created of Chanel as an icon for women embracing the new look. While Chanel was talented, she was also unashamed to use herself to get ahead.

Without her two affairs she would not have had the money to build her brand. For young women yearning to be designers or businesswomen perhaps Chanel’s way of achieving notoriety is not the most ethical. For some, Chanel could send the message to her peers during this time that sleeping with men for money is how you become successful and internationally known. As an older women describing her beginnings, Coco Chanel said, “I was able to start a high end fashion shop because two gentlemen were outbidding each other over my hot little body! ”15 The Interwar Period created a culture of consumerism.

The economy was prosperous and ready to wear clothing was new and very popular. Chanel would have had a harder time rising to the top of the fashion world without this economic boom from WWI. When Chanel’s designs were bought by the Parisian elite she was able to make personal connections to keep advancing herself and it benefitted her career. Towards the end of the 1920s her affair with the Duke of Westminster solidified Chanel into the British aristocracy. She became close with Winston Churchill and members of the royal family, which would help her out in the years to come.

Together, Chanel and the Duke of Westminster were outspoken with their anti-Semitic views and homophobia. Chanel’s perfume line had been financed, marketed, and produced by two Jewish brothers. Chanel started a 17-year battle with the Wertheimer brothers to gain monetary control over the company for the sole reason being they were Jewish. 16 Once more, Chanel used her body to advance and her blatant intolerance of Judaism and homosexuality is evidence that Chanel was intolerant and yet was still in business. In 1936 French workers went on strike for higher wages and the French labor unions met with management delegations.

Chanel refused to pay any wage increases and other demands brought forth. She eventually realized her fall line would not be produced unless she gave in. Chanel had no respect for the seamstresses she employed even though Chanel was once in that position herself. She employed roughly 3,000 women where the working conditions and hours were strenuous and took a toll on them. Chanel’s treatment of the female workers she felt were beneath her is not often written about but it is important to note that once Chanel had become one of the elite she wanted nothing to do with the lower class.

Chanel offered no extra benefits or help to the women working for her after agreements were met. 17 Three years later World War II began and Chanel closed her shops because she felt that war was not a time for fashion. Some see this as retaliation for the labor strike years before. 18 Regardless, Chanel’s actions against the women she employed go against the idea of the liberated woman she is credited with originating. Now in the fashion industry for twenty years, Chanel had an empire and was an internationally known name.

However, the general public at this time had almost no knowledge of where Chanel had come from and how she rose to success. This helped increase the idolatry and admiration women held for her. Chanel created a public persona that was idyllic. Majority of what Chanel told reporters was fabricated because Chanel was so ashamed of her background. 19 It is hard to say whether Chanel’s fans during this time would have remained as loyal if her full background was known. Looking back at the social classes in France during the 1920s and 1930s there was a strong middle class.

The middle class appeared in the early 20th century and its members wanted a clear distinction between themselves and members of the lower working classes. 20 Chanel’s designs that every woman copied in the 20s had evolved into an exclusively high-end collection much like Chanel herself. Chanel resided in the Hotel Ritz in Paris during World War II after the closing of her shops. France was now under German Occupation and German military officers also resided at the Hotel Ritz. While the rest of France was strengthening their Resistance, Chanel was practically living with Nazi officers.

The French Resistance amongst its citizens was huge and women were central in it. This could potentially have been Chanel’s moment to earn her status as an icon for women. Female resisters could get away with almost anything because the Nazis were so dismissive of females having power. These women were excellent at falsifying documents and identities, decoding, and transporting paperwork and they risked everything to be apart of it. 21 Chanel took absolutely no part in the Resistance but rather had an affair with Officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage who was an operative in military intelligence. 2 There are several allegations that Chanel was a Nazi spy. Chanel had become very connected in the past twenty-five years and saw herself as an asset to the Germans. There are travel records in French and British intelligence of Chanel with Nazi officers and their train schedules and dates. There is no actual proof of what Chanel did when she was a spy so she could not be convicted after her arrest in 1944. 23 Chanel handwrote a note to Churchill in 1944 explaining why it looked suspicious for Chanel and her friend Vera Lombardi to have such close connections with the Germans: My Dear Winston,

Excuse me to come & ask you in such moments like these…I had heard from some time that Vera Lombardi was not very happily treated in Italy on account of her being English and married with an Italian officer…You know me well enough to understand that I did everything in my power to pull her out of that situation which had indeed become tragic as the Fascists had simply locked her up in prison…I was obliged to address myself to someone rather important to get her freed and to be allowed to bring her down here with e…that I succeeded placed me in a very difficult situation as her passport which is Italian has been stamped with a German visa and I understand quite well that it looks a bit suspect…you can well imagine my dear after years of occupation in France it has been my lot to encounter all kinds of people! I would have pleasure to talk over all these things with you! I remain always affectionately, Coco Chanel Perhaps Randolph could give me news of you. 24 Many Parisians postwar took Chanel’s actions as a slap in the face to France and questioned Chanel’s loyalty to France.

Throughout World War II Chanel did not partake in anything to do with fashion and is remembered in France as somewhat of a traitor. Chanel moved to Switzerland following the war and ten years later returned to the fashion scene where she was welcomed by the Americans, whom are now her loyal customers. 25 Chanel was able to stay at the top of the fashion industry for so long because she was solely in Paris until after World War II. The French perspective is key to understanding how a woman like Chanel could maintain success.

The French have a harder time accepting outside culture or influence because they want to keep France ‘French’. Since the French Revolution in 1789, nationalism has been important to the French people. The national motto of France is liberte, egalite, fraternite! (liberty, equality, fraternity/brotherhood). 26 Chanel was born in France and was easily accepted by the French community because in a way she could be seen as adding to the French culture. Her styles were created and manufactured in France by French people and this was most important to them.

Her success after World War I boosted the morale of women and increased consumerism throughout France. Eventually, Chanel put herself above France and her involvement with the enemy in WWII ended her reign of success in the country. Another perspective of Chanel’s life and career to explore is that of American consumers. Americans during 1914 -1945 were not unaware of the brand and style of Chanel but it was not as common across the large country like it was in Europe. When the European press slammed Chanel in 1954 after her fashion show, she went to the United States one year later.

The buyers in New York were thrilled to have her comeback be in the States and alerted Life Magazine. Life did a four-page spread on the comeback of Chanel. 27 Chanel’s reputation with the Nazis did not survive the journey across the Atlantic much to her benefit. Since Chanel had always been private and untruthful in the press, the American citizens really did not know much about Chanel as a person and just had the image of her as a foreign high-powered successful designer. At this time Chanel was 71 years old.

It is possible that her age was to her benefit concerning American acceptance. Chanel’s affairs when she was younger were not that important to Americans because they did not know the military officers she was involved with. News of her affairs with Nazi officers going beyond just a relationship broke out to the public in the 21st century long after Chanel’s death. Therefore, Americans had virtually no reason to not accept Chanel. In conclusion, the wild life that Coco Chanel created was what kept her career alive.

The mysterious Frenchwoman caught the eyes of wealthy men who financed her career and gave her the opportunity to become a success. The booming economy and new culture of consumerism from WWI helped Chanel become a household name and powerhouse in France. Chanel had the ability to recreate herself at any opportunity she came across and she did. She could do this because she never told the truth to anyone. No one really knew Chanel until after she died. She told interviewers wrong birth dates and gave different accounts of how she was raised.

She went from being an orphan to a member of the French elite then on to a British aristocrat. Her many affairs ranged from heirs to Dukes to Nazi officers and she was able to fit into each of them. Shockingly enough, all these factors are apart of the reason Chanel had staying power. Her rich clients gave her access to wealthy men and vice versa. The connections Chanel made between 1918 and 1945 were key giving her a place in every part of society in Europe.

After her Nazi affairs and losing her place in Paris, Chanel had one resource left to tap and that was the United States’ fashion scene. People in the United States were eager to have the designer’s comeback be on their soil. Once famous stars started wearing Chanel, the clothing was in high demand where it stays today. No other woman but Chanel could live the life she did and get away with being called an icon. "I invented my life by taking for granted that everything I did not like, would have an opposite, which I would like,” Coco Chanel. 28

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Biography of Coco Chanel: Fashion Leader, Nazi Informant, Compulsive Liar. (2017, Feb 03). Retrieved from

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