— CoCo Chanel, 1947
What is Chanel? what every woman is wearing without knowing it.
—l’ExprEss magazine, 1956
Corporate headquarters for the House of Chanel occupies an anonymous building on a cul-de-sac in Paris’s fashionable first arrondissement. Step- ping inside the lobby, one enters a high modernist temple—a hushed, windowless cavern of gleaming cream-colored marble, smoked glass doors, and Eames chairs for waiting guests.
Patience is required here, since even after being announced by security guards, all visitors are personally ushered upstairs by a Chanel employee who must penetrate an elaborate series of high-security checkpoints with an electronic badge. For convenience, badges are worn on elastic strings around the neck, often hidden beneath the long ropes of Chanel pearls worn by so many of the (mostly female) employees here, along with chain-link belts, bouclé suits, jersey separates, quilted purses, beige-and-black shoes, and hundreds of other iconic objects, which, together with the wafting clouds of Chanel No. 5, conjure the goddess who haunts this temple still. She may have passed away more than forty years ago at the age of eighty-seven, but within these marble walls, the founder of the empire is ever-young, ever-present, and referred to simply as “Mademoiselle.”
Ask nearly any woman in the developed world if she is familiar with “Chanel” and you get an instant reaction—a little “whoosh” of breath, a deep awareness. Most men know who she is, too, or rather what it is, since part of what is being recognized is an identity that transcends fashion and even the person herself. For one hundred years and counting, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel has exerted global influence as a designer, a business- woman, a corporate brand, and, finally, as a symbol of feminine privilege and style.
Although Chanel was born in rural poverty and raised in an orphan- age with little formal education, by the time she was thirty her name was a household word in France. At the age of thirty, she expanded her business into the international market; thanks in part to the wild success of her perfume, Chanel No. 5 (the first synthetically created fragrance in history), she became a multimillionaire before the age of forty. By 1930, when Chanel was forty-seven, she employed 2,400 people and was worth at least $15 million—close to $1 billion in today’s currency. To this day, every three seconds a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is sold; it is the most successful perfume in history. The Chanel corporation, founded in 1910, is the highest-earning privately owned luxury goods manufacturer in the world. Chanel’s influence extends beyond the long life of her company; it has been woven deeply into global consciousness. Her name remains as recognizable today as it was a century ago, known not only to the mil- lions of customers who buy Chanel merchandise at all price points (from perfume to couture), but also to those who wish they could, and to the millions more who buy the infinitely available copies. Every day, on nearly any urban street corner in the world, a constant défilé of Chanel products (genuine and imitation) streams by—the famous initial motif, those interlocking Cs, emblazoned on handbags and scarves, dangling from necklaces and earrings. Not all of the women sporting these accessories necessarily know that they are wearing someone’s initials or that “Chanel” was once a real person, so completely has Chanel the woman blended into Chanel the brand. But they all have faith in the talismanic power of those Cs, in their ability to conjure a little magic, to cast an aura of chic and privilege over their wearer.
I know this because I have been stopping CC-wearing strangers for years to ask them what the letters mean to them. Regardless of social class or whether the “Chanels” are real, the answers rarely vary. When asked why she had chosen her oversize, rhinestone double-C earrings, one inner-city teenager (who was surprised to learn that “Chanel” was the name of a real woman) responded: “I don’t know; it’s just classy. I like the brand.” When asked about her black Chanel sunglasses, an affluent college student first assured me they were “real,” and then said, “It just makes me feel better to have them on.” A Chanel executive offered little more in the way of explanation, stating simply that the double-C logo was “un vrai sésame de luxe”—a French expression roughly translatable as “a truly magical passport [more literally, an ‘open sesame’] to luxury.”
Chanel would not have minded this odd admixture of fame and anonymity. On the contrary, she would have loved it, for she devoted her life to transcending the personal, to transforming herself (and her name) into an icon of feminine desirability and luxury. She would probably be equally pleased to learn that “Chanel” has gained popularity in the twenty-first century as a first name for baby girls in the United States. (A few young women now even bear the hyphenated first name “Coco-Chanel.”)
Through her unique blend of overt and anonymous influence Chanel forged the look of modern womanhood as we know it. Even now, every day, millions of women awake and costume themselves as some version of Coco Chanel, choosing from a vast array of simple and reproducible items that created the streamlined look designed and worn first by Chanel, then by her vast army of customers: skirt suits in neutral colors, trousers, cardigan sweaters, jersey knits, T-shirts, flat shoes, the little black dress, and about a hundred other items we consider wardrobe staples.
Chanel was among the very first to wear her hair short, to wear eye- glasses without shame, even to sport a suntan—formerly scorned as a sign of peasant labor. (Later, when she learned about skin-damaging UV rays, she counseled caution in the sun and developed a lotion with sunscreen.)
Look around you—on the street, in the subway, at the office—at women of all ages and social classes and you will see a kind of retinal afterimage of Coco Chanel. So deeply has the Chanel aesthetic been impressed upon us that we no longer see it—like the air we breathe, it is everywhere but invisible. Even during her lifetime and at the height of her fame, Chanel’s style operated more by stealth than by fanfare.
How can we explain the power and longevity of this one individual’s vision? Certain lives are at once so exceptional and so in step with their historical moment that they illuminate cultural forces far beyond the scope of a single person. Such is the case with Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, whose life, while fascinating in its details, becomes even more compel- ling when studied in relationship to European history, especially the interwar period—the era that launched her to stardom.
Despite the world’s fascination with Coco Chanel, no one has truly broached the subject of her relationship to the sweeping currents of political change in her lifetime; indeed, it has been shunned. “Mention Chanel and politics,” one prominent museum director warned me in ominous tones, “and they will shut you down.”
“They”—the tenders of the Chanel corporate flame—“will sully your reputation.” This may be true, for Chanel’s role in political history remains the curiously blank space around which many other books have been written. Biographies and films about Chanel tend to focus on her personal glamour and on her rags-to-riches story; histories of fashion recount her design work as if it had no political resonance beyond her (quite genuine) liberation of women’s bodies via her easy, relaxed style. Conversely, the books that do look at fashion politically tend to omit Chanel in favor of a literal idea of “political” fashion, tracing, for example, the history of Nazi uniforms, or studying fashion’s role as a wartime morale booster. The references to politics that do appear in Chanel biographies focus on revelations about her friends and lovers, or on a few of her own questionable political actions. What remains to be considered is how her work and art themselves partook of European politics, and what her many intriguing love affairs might offer beyond their anecdotal value. To discover the historical we must sometimes look to the personal.
Chanel came alive in relation to other people, the lovers and friends through whom she absorbed and synthesized every aspect of the world around her—art, history, politics. The key to her global importance lies in those intimate relationships. Chanel approached those closest to her with a uniquely ferocious hunger, a nearly vampiric desire to swallow whole and incorporate whatever appeared most delicious in them—their social status, athletic grace, talent, or style. Her fierce desire to absorb the desirable attributes of others—to borrow from them to enhance herself— sustained her through her early years. But it is also precisely the quality she understood best and appealed to in her own customers. Chanel knew from personal experience how deeply women can yearn to slip, as it were, into someone more comfortable, to burnish their own identities by borrowing someone else’s.
In response, she used fashion to create perhaps the world’s most easily borrowed persona, a persona so attractive on so many levels that other women longed to incorporate it, much as Coco herself had subsumed (and creatively reinterpreted) the influential people in her own life. In this, she demonstrated her strangely flexible, self-aware talent: She could play equally well both—apparently opposite—roles in the drama of emulation. She could, that is, discern and emulate vastly different creative models and then turn around and serve as just such a model for others, becoming arguably the most copied woman of the twentieth century.
Through her personal aesthetics, which evolved out of her own longings, Chanel tapped into other women’s deepest yearnings, whose scope—as Coco always knew—far exceeded the sartorial. Her brilliant grasp of the psychological and social forces driving celebrity emulation led Chanel to create what one might call “wearable personality”—which we are all still wearing today.
From the moment she arrived in Paris, Chanel was playing on the world stage, meeting and befriending some of the most influential and well-connected figures of the twentieth century—members of European royalty, artists and intellectuals, politicians, spies, and criminals. These relationships granted her intimate familiarity with large swaths of history, known to most people only through the pages of books. Coco’s lover Grand Duke Dmitri, for example, regaled her with his family stories—of the Romanov dynasty, the Bolshevik Revolution, and his personal role in the assassination of Rasputin. A later companion, Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, had participated in the Second Boer War— where he befriended Churchill—and contributed significant financial support to the establishment of British-ruled South Africa and its apartheid system. Artist Paul Iribe, to whom Chanel was briefly engaged, championed protofascist, archconservative, and racist causes, yet also had a deep, familial connection to the Paris Commune, the radical worker uprising of 1871. Iribe’s politics, which evolved in direct opposition to his father’s participation in that Communist revolt, profoundly informed Chanel’s own worldview, which veered ever rightward as time went on. Both personally and through her work, Chanel participated in a particular strain of politics that was heavily inflected with the mass movements of interwar Europe and their manipulations of human desires and insecurities. And yet, ever contradictory, Chanel was most tenderly attached to the memory of her lover, Boy Capel, a committed internationalist, and to her longtime intimate friend—and sometime lover—poet Pierre Reverdy, a staunch leftist who introduced her to classical French literature.
As readily as she took in and assimilated aesthetic influence, Chanel absorbed and filtered elements of European history that she discovered through her social and erotic encounters. Then, through an alchemical process unique to her, she transformed these filaments of history into her designs, creating an aesthetic that now functions as a kind of style DNA for virtually every woman in the industrialized world. Whether we know it or not, we are all now wearing Chanel’s distillation of European history, as she absorbed it through her relationships. No other single individual has ever wielded anything comparable to this degree of aesthetic influence on so many, or for so long.
Chanel herself had a complex personal relationship to the genre of biography: She found it at once frightening and compellingly attractive. Having sought all her life to hide her true origins—the poverty, her orphaned childhood, her lack of education—she replaced her life story with a series of ever-changing fictions, as carefully tailored as her clothes. She destroyed her own letters and begged (or bribed) her correspondents to do the same. Some say that her poor education left her with imperfect written French, which embarrassed her enough to keep her from writing many letters in the first place. Yet those few letters that do remain, in both French and English, while simply written and containing some minor errors, are far from embarrassing. And she famously lied constantly to everyone, about everything—even trivial matters—never bothering even to keep her many fictions consistent.
Yet as much as Chanel wished to hide her story, she yearned to tell it, too, and did—repeatedly—to various potential biographers, only to deny later what she’d recounted, withdraw approval for publication, or simply abandon the endeavor in midstream. This happened with a wide variety of writers (many of them her friends) who attempted to tell her story, including Jean Cocteau, novelist Louise de Vilmorin, journalist Michel Déon, and Edmonde Charles-Roux. Michel Déon sat for hours with Chanel interviewing her for his book, which she adamantly rejected afterward. Bowing to her wishes, he never published it and claims to have destroyed the manuscript. Even Chanel’s lifelong best friend, Misia Sert, encountered similar resistance. When Sert was about to pub- lish her own memoirs, Chanel insisted at the last minute that she excise the entire section devoted to their friendship. Charles-Roux’s biography, L’Irrégulière, remains among the best, although Chanel angrily repudiated both the book and her friend, Madame Charles-Roux, upon its publication. Chanel’s longtime friend, assistant, and chief stylist Lilou Marquand told me that Chanel wanted to make it illegal for anyone to write her biography, and tried to have her attorney René de Chambrun draw up an official document to formalize this impossible injunction. A few other writers and one movie producer told me that they, too, had begun and later given up on projects about Chanel’s life, so difficult did it become both legally and personally (even long after Mademoiselle’s death).
Among some of the biographers who succeeded in publishing their work on Chanel, a curious—even eerie—phenomenon prevails: The authors seem to permit their subject to overtake them entirely, almost as if through spirit possession. Jean Cocteau’s brief essay on Chanel features this stylistic oddity; it is written in the first person, as if spoken by Coco herself. But his is not the only one. Paul Morand, whose book The Allure of Chanel also stands among the finest (for its style rather than accuracy), results from a series of interviews between them (published only after Chanel’s death), but is written, as is Cocteau’s essay, in the first person, as if Coco had told the story herself.
Louise de Vilmorin, who’d been a close friend of Chanel’s, produced her Memoirs of Coco in 1971, and here, once more, the text is written in the first person, in the voice of Mademoiselle, though Chanel withdrew her approval of the manuscript when it was done and tried to block its publication legally. And while Justine Picardie’s 2010 biography, Chanel: The Legend and the Life, does not indulge in that peculiar, ventriloquized Cha- nel voice, Picardie does tiptoe into the realm of the occult.
Picardie, who received permission to spend a night in Chanel’s suite at the Ritz, has recounted a possible encounter with the ghost of Mademoiselle. According to Picardie, after she retired for the night in Chanel’s bed, all kinds of eerie mischief broke loose: A bulb burst out of a wall sconce; lights in the room began flickering on and off by themselves; doors rattled; voices murmured; and mysterious footsteps echoed in the corridor. Although told in a slightly tongue-in-cheek style, the episode seems designed to convey Chanel’s ongoing unearthly power, her tendency to invade anyone who dares write of her.
It may be that, faced with the depths of obfuscation Chanel practiced to shield the truth of her life, some biographers simply gave over their voices to Coco to signal that they could not determine an objective truth—that they were yielding to Chanel’s ongoing theatrical mono- logue about her life. But something more happens in these books; their transmission of Coco’s voice is too absolute, too startling, and happens too often to be the result of a mere stylistic coincidence. On the contrary, this biographical ventriloquism is nothing less than the literary version of Chanel’s stylistic revolution. That is, just as Chanel succeeded in making half the world wish to copy her, she seduced her biographers into channeling her voice. Chanel wills herself (sometimes even posthumously) to be reproduced by and through others. She truly embodies the spirit of mimetic contagion.
No one writing about Chanel proves completely immune to this seductive force of hers, and I confess I’ve had my moments. Few women raised on fashion magazines could mount the famous mirrored spiral staircase at the House of Chanel without a little inward gasp, without stopping for a moment to compose themselves as I did when climbing those noiseless, plush, beige-carpeted stairs. And thanks to the gracious staff of the Conservatoire Chanel (renamed in 2011 the Direction du Patrimoine Chanel), I have also experienced the thrill of examining Co- co’s personal jewelry collection, handling (and yes, trying on) her giant emerald ring (the stone a gift from the Duke of Westminster) and ruby- encrusted bracelet.
I have donned one of Romy Schneider’s original Chanel jackets, and I have spent time in the famous rue Cambon studio and adjacent apartment. There, I even tried on Mademoiselle’s spectacles and experienced firsthand their vertiginously strong prescription.
I knew I had to rein myself in, though, the night I interviewed Chanel’s longtime friend Lilou Marquand at her home in Paris. After spending hours talking with me, Madame Marquand began pulling Chanel clothes out of her closets and having me try them on. By evening’s end I was decked out in a sleek cream tweed coat (circa 1958) with Coco’s own white mousseline scarf tied dashingly (by Lilou) around my neck. Stylist that she still is in her late eighties, Madame Marquand insisted on taking photographs of me, and ran around her apartment adjusting the lighting and shouting posing instructions. I had the time of my life. As I left, Ma- dame Marquand insisted that I keep the scarf, which Coco had made for herself out of the hem of one of her own chiffon evening dresses. I floated home through the streets of Paris, letting my sixty-year-old scarf fly out behind me in the night breeze. I had succumbed—not only to the charm of my interview subject and the eternal pleasure of dress-up games—but also to the idea that I was wearing a relic, an object of nearly religious significance, a piece of French civilization as foundational as the Arènes de Lutèce, the stone ruins of a Roman arena hidden in Paris’s fifth arrondissement.
The next day, realizing how easily ensorcelled I’d been by this bit of Chanel mania, I rededicated myself to my goal here, which is to under- stand the process that had ensnared me: the mechanics behind this will to copy and to be copied, the will toward emulation, the reverence for long- dead charismatic individuals—in short, the uncanny historical reach of Coco Chanel.
Given how meticulously Chanel effaced her “true” self, to write an- other traditional biography of her would be misguided, an exercise in pinning down a ghost. After reading an early version of this manuscript, my editor pronounced Coco “the hole in the center of her own story.” She was right. Chanel seems sometimes to recede, to disappear from the grasp of those who try to explain her. Therein, though, lies the power of her life. In her zeal to fit in, Chanel dissolved and re-created herself a thousand times. But more important, she figured out a way to let other women do that, too. The Chanel persona and design universe beckon us to insert our own narratives into the blank space Coco left for us. That hole where her life should be is actually a seductive invitation. Like the painted pasteboard figures with cutout faces found at carnivals—behind which tourists pose for novelty self-portraits, “disguised” as pioneer wives or Victorian ladies—Chanel asks us to insert ourselves into her persona, to meld our own biography with hers.
Chanel’s close friend Jean Cocteau understood this phenomenon perfectly. In 1933 he published a cartoon portrait of her for Le Figaro il- lustré, omitting her face entirely. Coco’s identity communicates itself through the casually regal pose of the body, the distinctively bobbed hair, and, of course, everything she’s wearing: the strands of pearls, the gathered bow of the blouse, the softly draped jacket, the knee-length skirt. Cocteau’s drawing brilliantly hints at Chanel’s implicit invitation to other women to insert their own faces into the blank space, to enter into a dialogue or communion with Coco, without fear of losing themselves completely—without “losing face.” The longevity and appeal of Chanel’s aesthetic depend, in fact, upon just how easy this process is.