15 Things You Didn't Know About Coco Chanel

Sasha/Getty Images
Sasha/Getty Images

Tweed jackets, the little black dress, menswear as womenswear: Coco Chanel is responsible for many of the innovations that still dictate women's fashion today. But there's a lot more to the designer than her gold-chained handbags, signature scent, and witty remarks—like her literal rags-to-riches story. Here are 15 things you might not know about the famed French fashion icon Coco Chanel.

1. Coco Chanel learned to sew at an orphanage.

Gabrielle Chanel sometime before 1914.
Gabrielle Chanel sometime before 1914.
Apic/Getty Images

Born Gabrielle Chanel on August 19, 1883, the future fashion designer came from humble beginnings. After her mother died when Chanel was around 12, her peddler father put her and her two sisters in a convent-run orphanage. The nuns there taught her to sew, and the stark black and white of their habits began to inform her design aesthetic.

2. Her nickname, Coco, most likely came from her brief time as a singer.

Coco Chanel, circa 1920.
Coco Chanel, circa 1920.
Kristine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

After leaving the orphanage at age 18, she worked in a tailor's shop during the day, and eventually began singing at French caf'concs, a sort of early-version cabaret show featuring bawdy verses sung in urban working class bars and restaurants. Chanel and her aunt Adrienne (who was just over a year older than Gabrielle) used these gigs to make extra money and flirt with the military personnel that were stationed in Moulins, France. The story goes that two of the songs Chanel was known to sing were "Ko Ko Ri Ko" and "Qui qu'a vu Coco dans l'Trocadéro?" ("Who's seen Coco at the Trocadéro?"), and the crowd would call for encores by shouting "Coco! Coco!" Of course, Coco is also a term of endearment for a child (and Chanel preferred telling of how her father would call her that), and it can also be a diminutive of cocotte, a French term for a kept woman—which she would soon become.

3. Chanel was a licensed milliner.

Coco Chanel in her Paris apartment, circa 1959.
Coco Chanel in her Paris apartment, circa 1959.
Kristine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

After her brief singing career, Chanel became a licensed milliner and opened a hat shop in 1910 called Chanel Modes, at 21 Rue Cambon in Paris. The venture was funded by Etienne Balsan, a wealthy heir to a textile empire whom she'd met when he was a young officer in Moulins; according to Lisa Chaney's biography Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life, Balsan "invited her to live with him as his mistress," and Coco readily accepted.

At her hat shop, Chanel got a lucky break when Gabrielle Dorziat, a famous French actress of the time, became a fan of Chanel's hats and sparked a trend. Later in Chanel's life, a hat became a signature accessory—photographer Douglas Kirkland, who spent three weeks documenting the designer in 1962, never saw her remove it.

4. She designed that famous Chanel logo herself.

The Chanel interlocking Cs logo
Kristine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Still emblazoned on handbag, earrings, necklaces, and dozens of other products, the famous interlocking "Cs" of the Chanel logo were created by the designer and first appeared circa 1924 on bottles for her signature fragrance, Chanel No. 5. The logo hasn't changed since. Theories on her inspiration vary, but many point to Catherine de Medici's royal insignia, which Chanel may have seen on a visit to a royal residence. Alternately, the same insignia is featured on the walls of Château de Crémat in Nice where, according to legend, Chanel had attended parties, and the two Cs obviously worked well with her name and branding.

Another possibility was that was an homage to English aristocrat and polo player Arthur "Boy" Capel, Chanel's longtime lover and the man whom she considered the love of her life; he died in an automobile accident just before Christmas 1919, leaving Coco devastated. It's speculated that the Cs could have been for Capel & Chanel—her way of keeping his influence and memory alive.

5. Her fragrance, Chanel No. 5, might have been the result of a lab mistake.

Bottle of Chanel No. 5
lilivanili, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The story behind Chanel's iconic perfume is full of twists and turns. In the early 1920s, Chanel worked with perfumer Ernest Beaux to create the scent. Reportedly, Chanel liked Beaux's fifth sample, leading to the now-famous name. (Also, five was said to be her lucky number.) But the scent, with notes of jasmine, rose, sandalwood, and vanilla, might have been the result of a laboratory mistake. The formula had an unusually high dose of aldehyde in it—a synthetic component that made the scent "sparkle." The fragrance and its groundbreaking, minimalist bottle design would go on to become one of the best-selling and most recognized perfumes in the world.

6. Chanel sparked a decades-long court case over her perfume.

Portrait of Coco Chanel
Kristine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In a business deal to launch Chanel No. 5 in department stores in 1924, Chanel kept her name on the bottle, but got only 10 percent of the profits. Businessman Pierre Wertheimer agreed to make the perfume in mass quantities, taking a 70 percent cut (Théophile Bader, the founder of famed Paris department store Galeries Lafayette, got the other 20 percent because he brokered the deal). Chanel waged war in the courts for years to try to sweeten her deal—in fact, the Wertheimer business eventually had a lawyer whose only job was to deal with Chanel.

7. Chanel was allegedly a Nazi agent.

Chanel in her suite at the Ritz hotel in Paris, 1937
Chanel in her suite at the Ritz hotel in Paris, 1937.
Kristine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

After Chanel's death in 1971, classified documents started to emerge that revealed the full extent of her dealings with the Nazis during WWII. Her decade-long affair with Hans Günther Von Dincklage, a German intelligence officer, was well known (she stayed ensconced at the Ritz during much of the Nazi occupation of Paris), but in his 2011 book Sleeping With the Enemy, journalist Hal Vaughan revealed that Chanel was involved enough with the Nazi agenda that she was referred to as Abwehr Agent F-7124—codename "Westminster." "There were legions of women of courage and derring-do throughout Europe, working hard to outwit the Nazis," The Washington Post's book review stated. "Chanel was not among them."

When the war was over, Chanel exiled herself to Switzerland before returning to Paris in 1954 to restart her fashion house. For their part, Chanel (the company) contested the claims in Vaughn's book, arguing that she had many close Jewish friends before and after the war and that her role during the Nazi occupation may have been more nuanced.

8. Chanel even enlisted Nazi help in the Chanel No. 5 fight.

A Chanel No.5 ad in a 1971 magazine.
A Chanel No.5 ad in a 1971 magazine.
Classic Film, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

During World War II, Chanel leveraged her Nazi connections and tried to use Aryan laws to push Pierre Wertheimer and his brother—who were Jewish—out of her business. Thanks to some last-minute business dealings that involved selling their majority stake to an Aryan businessman during the war, the Wertheimers were able to hold on to their investment and regain full ownership after the war. Incredibly, the Wertheimers eventually financed Chanel's return the fashion industry in the 1950s. The notoriously tight-lipped Wertheimer family refuses to give interviews or speak on their dealings or relationship with Coco Chanel, but they still own the Chanel brand to this day; it's worth $8 billion by recent estimates.

9. Winston Churchill was a friend of Chanel's.

Winston Churchill (right) is accompanied by his son, Randolph, and Coco Chanel at a meet of the Duke of Westminster's boar hounds in northern France, circa 1928.
Winston Churchill (right) is accompanied by his son, Randolph, and Coco Chanel at a meet of the Duke of Westminster's boar hounds in northern France, circa 1928.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Chanel had well-placed friends everywhere, including politicians. She met Winston Churchill in the mid-1920s through her then-lover, the Duke of Westminster. The duke—one of wealthiest men in the world and one with considerable influence—was close friends with Churchill (who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer), and the future prime minister was a regular at his home. Once, in a letter home, Churchill wrote that "the famous [Coco Chanel] turned up and I took great fancy to her—a most capable and agreeable woman … She hunted vigorously all day, motored to Paris after dinner, and today is engaged in passing and improving dresses on endless streams of mannequins. … She does it all with her own fingers, pinning, cutting, looping. Some have to be altered ten times." More than a decade later, during World War II, this old friendship was used by the Nazis to try to form an alliance with England.

10. Although Chanel had many affairs, she never married.

Gabrielle Chanel and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia, circa 1920.
Gabrielle Chanel and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia, circa 1920.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The only thing Chanel was more famous for than her fashions might be her storied affairs. Her many dalliances included a short-lived one with Pablo Picasso (Lisa Chaney's biography Coco Chanel, An Intimate Life describes its end as "Picasso [was] always quick to demand sexual and emotional subservience from his women, and Gabrielle being in many ways just as intense and formidable a character as he was, this affair could only have been a brief one"), the Duke of Westminster, the grandson of a Russian Tsar, and the composer Igor Stravinsky. When Stravinsky took to reworking his famed The Rite of Spring for a new staging with a Paris ballet company in 1920, Chanel was one of the primary patrons.

11. The Chanel bag made it acceptable for women to wear shoulder bags.

A Chanel ad, circa 1956.
A Chanel ad, circa 1956.
Kristine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In the 1950s, it was de rigueur for women of status to carry their purse in their hands. But in 1955, Chanel changed all that when she introduced the 2.55 Chanel Shoulder Bag (named for when it launched, in February 1955). The sleek bag featured quilted leather and a signature gold chain for the strap, making it glamorous for women to wear a bag on their shoulder.

12. Chanel made jersey fabric cool.

Illustration published in 'Les Elegances Parisiennes,' showing three women in day outfits by
Illustration published in 'Les Elegances Parisiennes,' showing three women in day outfits by "Gabrielle Channel" (sic) consisting of belted tunic jackets and full jersey skirts; March 1917.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Chanel first starting designing in the early 20th century, women's fashion relied on the corset, which made for tight, fitted, and uncomfortable styles. Chanel liberated the silhouette by using jersey—a fabric then primarily used for men's underwear. Jersey was inexpensive and it draped well, making it perfect for Chanel's early designs of simple dresses.

13. Chanel's also credited with popularizing the little black dress.

A Chanel little black dress and accessories photographed for French Vogue in 1964.
A Chanel little black dress and accessories photographed for French Vogue in 1964.
Kristine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Perhaps fashion's most enduring wardrobe staple—the one that can be reinvented and reworn a thousand different ways—was another one-time revolutionary idea that Chanel brought to the masses: the little black dress. Vogue coined the term in 1926, printing a Chanel design and comparing it to the Ford Model T in terms of universality (they called the dress "the frock that all the world will wear"). Although the LBD is considered a basic must-have now, at the time it was revolutionary because black was considered a color for those mourning.

14. Chanel even made getting a tan fashionable.

Coco Chanel at the French Riviera in the mid-1920s.
Coco Chanel at the French Riviera in the mid-1920s.
Apic/Getty Images

The LBD, striped shirts, perfume, menswear as womenswear: Everything Chanel did started a trend. And that includes suntans. In the early 1920s, when visibly spending too much time in the sun was still considered lowbrow, Chanel got a little too bronzed while out on a Mediterranean cruise with the Duke of Westminster. The resulting photos of her arrival in Cannes are often credited as setting off a desire for that sun-touched glow (which she soon capitalized on by creating the first line of tanning lotions for women).

15. Katharine Hepburn played Chanel in a Broadway musical.

Coco

, a 1969 musical based on Chanel's life, had a book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner (best known for the blockbuster My Fair Lady). Though Katharine Hepburn was a veteran stage actress, the four-time Oscar winner was not particularly known for her singing voice—and this was to be her one and only musical. The show only had 329 performances on Broadway, but thanks to YouTube, the company's performance at the 1970 Tony Awards is still available—it was nominated for seven Tonys that night and won two. Even if the musical didn't have staying power, at least the thought of one pioneer of the modern, trouser-wearing woman playing another feels very—how would you say?—je ne sais quoi.

6 Facts About International Women's Day

iStock.com/robeo
iStock.com/robeo

For more than 100 years, March 8th has marked what has come to be known as International Women's Day in countries around the world. While its purpose differs from place to place—in some countries it’s a day of protest, in others it’s a way to celebrate the accomplishments of women and promote gender equality—the holiday is more than just a simple hashtag. Ahead of this year’s celebration, let’s take a moment to explore the day’s origins and traditions.

1. International Women's Day originated more than 100 years ago.

On February 28, 1909, the now-dissolved Socialist Party of America organized the first National Woman’s Day, which took place on the last Sunday in February. In 1910, Clara Zetkin—the leader of Germany’s 'Women's Office' for the Social Democratic Party—proposed the idea of a global International Women’s Day, so that people around the world could celebrate at the same time. On March 19, 1911, the first International Women’s Day was held; more than 1 million people in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark took part.

2. The celebration got women the vote in Russia.

In 1917, women in Russia honored the day by beginning a strike for “bread and peace” as a way to protest World War I and advocate for gender parity. Czar Nicholas II, the country’s leader at the time, was not impressed and instructed General Khabalov of the Petrograd Military District to put an end to the protests—and to shoot any woman who refused to stand down. But the women wouldn't be intimidated and continued their protests, which led the Czar to abdicate just days later. The provisional government then granted women in Russia the right to vote.

3. The United Nations officially adopted International Women's Day in 1975.

In 1975, the United Nations—which had dubbed the year International Women’s Year—celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8th for the first time. Since then, the UN has become the primary sponsor of the annual event and has encouraged even more countries around the world to embrace the holiday and its goal of celebrating “acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.”

4. International Women's Day is an official holiday in dozens of countries.

International Women’s Day is a day of celebration around the world, and an official holiday in dozens of countries. Afghanistan, Cuba, Vietnam, Uganda, Mongolia, Georgia, Laos, Cambodia, Armenia, Belarus, Montenegro, Russia, and Ukraine are just some of the places where March 8th is recognized as an official holiday.

5. It’s a combined celebration with Mother’s Day in several places.

In the same way that Mother’s Day doubles as a sort of women’s appreciation day, the two holidays are combined in some countries, including Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, and Uzbekistan. On this day, children present their mothers and grandmothers with small gifts and tokens of love and appreciation.

6. Each year's festivities have an official theme.

In 1996, the UN created a theme for that year’s International Women’s Day: Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future. In 1997, it was “Women at the Peace Table,” then “Women and Human Rights” in 1998. They’ve continued this themed tradition in the years since; for 2019, it's “Better the balance, better the world” or #BalanceforBetter.

8 Enlightening Facts About Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu
Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu

For decades, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has used television, radio, the written word, and the internet to speak frankly on topics relating to human sexuality, turning what were once controversial topics into healthy, everyday conversations.

At age 90, Westheimer shows no signs of slowing down. As a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, gears up for release on Hulu this spring, we thought we’d take a look at Westheimer’s colorful history as an advisor, author, and resistance sniper.

1. The Nazis devastated her childhood.

Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel. When Ruth was just five years old, the advancing Nazi party terrorized her neighborhood and seized her father in 1938, presumably to shuttle him to a concentration camp. One year later, Karola—who eventually began using her middle name and took on the last name Westheimer with her second marriage in 1961—was sent to a school in Switzerland for her own protection. She later learned that her parents had both been killed during the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz.

2. She shocked classmates with her knowledge of taboo topics.

Westheimer has never been bashful about the workings of human sexuality. While working as a maid at an all-girls school in Switzerland, she made classmates and teachers gasp with her frank talk about menstruation and other topics that were rarely spoken of in casual terms.

3. She trained as a sniper for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine.

Following the end of World War II, Westheimer left Switzerland for Israel, and later Palestine. She became a Zionist and joined the Haganah, an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters. Westheimer carried a weapon and trained as both a scout and sniper, learning how to throw hand grenades and shoot firearms. Though she never saw direct action, the tension and skirmishes could lapse into violence, and in 1948, Westheimer suffered a serious injury to her foot owing to a bomb blast. The injury convinced her to move into the comparatively less dangerous field of academia.

4. A lecture ignited her career.

 Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2015 in New York City.
Robin Marchant, Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

In 1950, Westheimer married an Israeli soldier and the two relocated to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Though the couple divorced in 1955, Westheimer's education continued into 1959, when she graduated with a master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City. (She received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1970.) After meeting and marrying Manfred Westheimer, a Jewish refugee, in 1961, Westheimer became an American citizen.

By the late 1960s, she was working at Planned Parenthood, where she excelled at having honest conversations about uncomfortable topics. Eventually, Westheimer found herself giving a lecture to New York-area broadcasters about airing programming with information about safe sex. Radio station WYNY offered her a show, Sexually Speaking, that soon blossomed into a hit, going from 15 minutes to two hours weekly. By 1983, 250,000 people were listening to Westheimer talk about contraception and intimacy.

5. People told her to lose her accent.

Westheimer’s distinctive accent has led some to declare her “Grandma Freud.” But early on, she was given advice to take speech lessons and make an effort to lose her accent. Westheimer declined, and considers herself fortunate to have done so. “It helped me greatly, because when people turned on the radio, they knew it was me,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

6. She’s not concerned about her height, either.

In addition to her voice, Westheimer became easily recognizable due to her diminutive stature. (She’s four feet, seven inches tall.) When she was younger, Westheimer worried her height might not be appealing. Later, she realized it was an asset. “On the contrary, I was lucky to be so small, because when I was studying at the Sorbonne, there was very little space in the auditoriums and I could always find a good-looking guy to put me up on a windowsill,” she told the HBR.

7. She advises people not to take huge penises seriously.

Westheimer doesn’t frown upon pornography; in 2018, she told the Times of Israel that viewers can “learn something from it.” But she does note the importance of separating fantasy from reality. “People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown—how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that.”

8. She lectures on cruise ships.

Westheimer uses every available medium—radio, television, the internet, and even graphic novels—to share her thoughts and advice about human sexuality. Sometimes, that means going out to sea. The therapist books cruise ship appearances where she offers presentations to guests on how best to manage their sex lives. Westheimer often insists the crew participate and will regularly request that the captain read some of the questions.

“The last time, the captain was British, very tall, and had to say ‘orgasm’ and ‘erection,’” she told The New York Times in 2018. “Never did they think they would hear the captain talk about the things we were talking about.” Of course, that’s long been Westheimer’s objective—to make the taboo seem tame.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER