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.4
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 Étienne 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. 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...