Coco Chanel, a woman of the 1920s, both innovative and bigoted

Coco Chanel was long gone before the Baby Boomer generation amounted to anything. But in a way, she was a boomer herself: strong-willed, independent, determined to change the world. Boomer author Rita Plush takes a look at this contradiction of a woman: at once innovative and bigoted.

“Fashion fades, only style remains,” Coco Chanel said in the 1920’s, and she knew. Almost a hundred years later, her style savvy is still influencing how women dress. She took women out of crinolines and putthem in knit sweaters and short pleated skirts. The turtleneck sweater, the turned back cuff, pants, costume jewelry, thank you Coco. Determined, confident, unafraid of her instincts, Chanel was a true Boomer Babe long before the term made its way into the vernacular.

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel

Born in a poor house in 1883, the illegitimate child of street peddlers, she was sent to a strict convent-orphanage in the barren French countryside but ended up as the epitome of high French style, her clothing the hallmark of refinement and craftsmanship, employing 2,000 people in her couture fashion workroom when she was still in her forties, then she made a comeback when she was seventy-one. The woman was unstoppable.

Has Chanel No. 5 grown stale?

Has Chanel No. 5 grown stale?

She originated the pill-box hat to go with her long-sleeved crepe de chine frocks, and she used jersey for outer clothing (prior to Chanel, jersey was used only for underwear). To casually fling over one of her sleeveless numbers, the boa. She gave women cardigans, flap pockets, and quilted leather — inspired by the quilted vests jockeys wore — and invented costume jewelry, making it chic to wear junk with real diamonds. Ever the innovator, she made her costumes in men’s gray and navy blue, haberdashery colors signifying the boldness of the feminine character.

Everything Chanel did was different, including the perfume that Marilyn Monroe said was all she wore to bed. Cloaked in drama — a Chanel cloak to be sure — the formula was shrouded in secrecy and said to have been stolen from another company.

Coco bedded Picasso and hunted wild boar with Winston Churchill, who in a letter to his wife said, “ … She is very agreeable — really a great strong being, fit to rule a man and an empire. And yet … there is another side to Chanel.”

But there was a dark side: charming one minute, volatile the next, she was sexually adventurous and although she was said to have had women as lovers, she openly hated gays.

Rita Plush

Rita Plush

Equally dark, the woman was a known anti-Semite — Jew-hating was taught in convent schools in that era and maybe she learned it in hers and it was never unlearned. She called MGM’s Goldwyn “that little Jew,” and chose men who were likeminded. Her boyfriend, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, or “Spatz” as his pals called him, was a Nazi intelligence agent who posed as a sun-worshipping tennis player while building an espionage operation to spy on the French navy at their Toulon base. And her friend the Duke of Westminster, “Bendor” to those in the know, after one too many whiskeys in front of a Rothschild said, “I cannot bear those bloody Jews.”

Does that dark side of Chanel take away from her accomplishments as a dynamic “I am woman hear me roar,” type of gal? Or does it add to the complex bundle of secrets and contradictions that she was, constantly reinventing herself, revising the tales she told about her life, past and present? Some would argue, perhaps a bit of both.

Rita Plush is online … click here.

7 Comments

  1. Your is a terrific article, Rita. I enjoyed learning about that Boomer Babe before those words were popularized. Amazing where some people rise to from humble beginnings. Keep on writing!

    Lois W. Stern

  2. Hi Lois

    I appreciate your comments. I also like to see how successful folks get to where they are (though I think Chanel was more successful as a business woman than she was as a human being).

    Rita

  3. Great article, Rita! I remember seeing a film about Coco Chanel a while back and it certainly showed what a successful entrepreneur she was and how abysmally disastrous in her relations with men. In fact she never got married and the suggestion was that she had been in love once and could never get over it. Is that your opinion too?

    Also I agree with you that she was most definitely a Baby Boomer ante litteram (women got fully emancipated and started to work full time building careers only some 40 years later). But I do think that the difficulty of “leaning in” – the subject of so much current debate – shows that for women, the question is essentially very tough to resolve. How to ally work and family? Coco Chanel’s answer was radical: don’t have family!

    Much as I admire her, I don’t think I can agree with her answer!

  4. Hi Claude

    Glad you liked the article. “Boy” Capel, a wealthy polo player, was the great love of her life. He was killed in a roadside accident and she never got over his death. It is said that she designed her “little black dress” in testament to that love, and women seeing her in it, and how chic they thought she looked, bought them for day wear.

    Rita

  5. Thanks, Rita, for your spirited article about a spirited gal. The writing was informative, yet lively and thought provoking. A most enjoyable read.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *