Coco Chanel: Biography of a Symbol of Elegance

Coco Chanel's life was full of successes, tragedies, and creativity at its best. She not only became a symbol of fashion, but also the person who changed forever the way women dress.
Coco Chanel: Biography of a Symbol of Elegance

Last update: 18 August, 2021

Coco Chanel is a legend in the fashion world and a symbol of elegance. In fact, many consider her to be the most important fashion designer of the 20th century. She forever changed women’s fashion, mainly because she was the first to put forward the idea that women could also wear men’s clothing.

Coco Chanel also forever banished fashion based on showy paraphernalia. Instead, she focused on elegance. In fact, she opted for simplicity and comfort, objectives that her company has retained to this day. Furthermore, although it wasn’t her real aim, she remains one of the figures who’s contributed the most to feminism over the tears.

“During my childhood I only longed to be loved. Every day I thought about how to take my own life, although deep down I was already dead. Only my pride saved me.”

-Coco Chanel-

Coco Chanel’s life was extremely controversial. As often happens with successful people, she had several painful experiences, starting with her own childhood. However, she became a great creator, businesswoman, and fashion leader. She was also embroiled in several scandals.

The House of Chanel signs.

The early years of Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel was born in Saumur, France, on August 19, 1883. Her real name was Gabrielle, given to her by the local nuns. She was the daughter of a street vendor and a laundrywoman, who were pretty poor. She had five siblings: Julia, Alphonse, Antoinette, Lucien, and Augustin, who died as a baby.

They all grew up in squalid conditions. Her mother suffered from asthma but received little medical attention. In fact, she died of bronchitis when Coco was 11 years old. Coco and her sister then went to a charity house run by nuns. There, they were subjected to extreme discipline. However, they were also taught to embroider, sew, and iron.

When Coco was 18, she went to another boarding school in Moulins. It was there that she met her aunt Adrianne, who was just two years older than her. The two were inseparable until death. For Coco, her sad and miserable past was a constant source of shame. In fact, she often made up stories to try and hide it.

From apprentice to teacher

Together with her aunt Adrianne, Coco began working as a tailor’s assistant in Moulins. There, they honed their sewing skills and learned hat-making. Coco also liked singing. In fact, she got a singing contract and often sung the song “Who’s seen Coco in the Trocadero?”. It was from here that she obtained her pseudonym under which she would later become famous.

She began designing and later selling hats, with remarkable success. Around this time she met Etienne Balsan and became his lover. His riches allowed her to discover luxury and extravagance. He started inviting her to horse races and that’s when she decided to order pants from a tailor, to feel comfortable.

Coco and Etienne went to Paris together. There, she met Arthur Capel. With his and Etienne’s help, she set up her first formal hat business. In 1910, thanks to Capel, she founded the first House of Chanel in Paris. Finally, she went to live with Capel, with whom she had long been in love.

Coco Chanel: an unquestionable success

From that time on, Coco Chanel was extremely successful. Her fame began to grow, and since she had the ability to always rise to a challenge, she started to consolidate her own particular style. In fact, Coco Chanel’s simplicity, comfort, and elegance were her hallmarks. At one point she was expecting a baby, but sadly, she lost him and with him the possibility of being a mother.

After eight years, Arthur Capel left her to marry a noblewoman. Nevertheless, after a while, he left his wife and went back to Coco. Later, she designed a wedding dress for her sister. However, her sister was unhappy in her marriage and committed suicide. Since then, the House of Chanel has never designed wedding dresses.

In 1919, Capel, her great love, died in a car accident. Those were dark days for Coco Chanel, but she later returned to her work. She introduced rabbit fur into clothing which was a resounding success. A little while later, she met Igor Stravinski and the two fell madly in love.

Chanel in a hat.

Coco Chanel: an unexpected end

Although her relationship with Igor Stravinsky lasted a long time, he was married. Coco then met Duke Dmitri, a nobleman expelled from Russia. He had been one of the assassins of the notorious Rasputin. The two began an affair and he gave her the Romanov dynasty’s pearls, which he’d managed to save. With that gift, Coco started a trend.

She later introduced the fashion of knee-length skirts. Up to then, women had only worn long skirts. In 1921, she launched her famous Chanel No. 5 perfume. It contained 80 separate ingredients and became a classic. She also launched the fashion for “the little black dress”. Previously, black had only been worn for mourning.

Later, she was appointed MGM’s official designer in Hollywood. In 1934, she became engaged to Paul Iribe, but he died of a heart attack shortly after. She then had an affair with a German diplomat. She continued to achieve success in the fashion world well into her 80s. However, one day she called out to her maid: “You see, this is how you die.” Then, she passed away.

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  • Urrea, I. (1997). Coco Chanel: la revolución de un estilo. Ediciones Internacionales Universitarias.