As her millinery business began to thrive, Chanel turned her attention to clothing. In a post-Chanel world, where the ‘little black dress’ is an accepted wardrobe essential, it’s difficult to comprehend that the simple style which epitomizes the Chanel look was groundbreaking at the time. In the early twentieth century, women’s clothing meant corsetry, colours, silk and satin. Chanel’s designs were simple, stripped back and elegant. She was instrumental in making black, a colour usually association with mourning, a colour that could be worn every day. Asserting that “I make fashion women can live in, breathe in, feel comfortable in and look younger in”, she worked with jersey (a fabric normally used for men’s underwear) for women’s fashion because it draped well and was comfortable to wear. The resulting clothes were sleek and fluid and also designed to be worn without corsets. These minimal designs transformed women’s fashion and created shapes which still form the basis of fashion design over a century later. Her work also led to trousers becoming acceptable everyday wear for women and even to a transformation in handbag design, with the addition of practical pockets and, in 1955, a shoulder strap (handbags were usually intended to hang over the arm) to free the hands and arms. Her approach to fragrance was no less innovative than her approach to fashion. In an age where a respectable women’s fragrance was the essence of a single garden flower and the heavier musk based perfumes tended to be associated with prostitutes and courtesans, she set out to create a new kind of blended fragrance which would express the new age and style of the 1920s. This led to the creation of Chanel No 5, a fragrance which blended traditional perfume oils such as jasmine and may rose with modern aldehydes – organic compounds of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon – which boost and preserve the scent. Chanel would later say “this is what I was waiting for. A perfume like nothing else. A woman’s perfume with the scent
of a woman.” She also applied her sense of simple, classic design to the perfume bottle itself. Spurning a traditional ornate crystal fragrance bottle, she opted for the famous rectangular glass design with its clean lines which was designed to focus the attention on the fragrance itself. Like the iconic Chanel Suit, the Chanel fragrance bottle became such a cultural artifact that in the 1980s Andy Warhol commemorated its iconic status in his work Ads: Chanel.
“this is what I was waiting for. A perfume like nothing else. A woman’s perfume with the scent of a woman” Whilst the work Chanel did in the world of fashion was hugely positive, the same cannot perhaps be said for the rumours about her personal and political life. According to US journalist Hal Vaughn, Chanel was a Nazi spy who was “Fiercely anti-Semitic long before it became a question of pleasing the Germans”. Vaughn claims that she was recruited into the Abwher (German military intelligence) in 1940 and had an Abwher lover – Hans Gunther Von Dinklage – who was honoured by both Hitler and Goebbels during the war. She was listed in Abwher records as Agent F-7124 and was codenamed ‘Westminster’ after her ex-lover the allegedly antiSemitic Duke of Westminster. However, after the war, it seems that her connections and influential friendships may have saved her from the consequences of any collaboration. In September 1944, she was called in to be interrogated by the Free French Purge Committee, however, the committee had no documented evidence of any collaboration. She was later quoted as saying “Churchill freed me”. The extend of Winston Churchill’s involvement is unknown, but it is possible that he intervened to prevent her being prosecuted because her evidence could have caused considerable embarrassment to top level Britons, including officials, aristocrats and even royalty. There are many contradictory stories about Coco Chanel’s life (several of which came from Chanel herself) but what cannot be disputed is the style legacy that she left behind. This legacy is such that it’s quite possible that the statement made by Harper’s Bizarre’s in 1915: “The woman who hasn’t at least one Chanel is hopelessly out of fashion” could have made in their most recent edition. Chanel once said: “fashion fades, only style remains the same.” However, it seems her style will never go out of fashion.