It’s been six years since Hal Vaughan’s scathing assessment of Coco Chanel’s behavior during WWII was published, and yet people still seem to be surprised when confronted with the evidence he uncovered regarding her Nazi connections. It seems like everyone knows she took a Nazi lover and was holed up in the Ritz for the duration of the war. But what about the rest of it?
I belong to a great Facebook group, Fashion Historians Unite! A few days ago someone posted a link to a review of Vaughan’s book that was published on MessyNessyChic back in 2012. Even in a group of fashion historians, the story seemed vague, and several rushed to Coco’s defense.
Why is it that people simply do not want to think the worst of a great designer like Chanel? Is it that we just don’t want to think that a woman capable of such understanding when it came to what a modern woman wanted to wear, could be lacking in human compassion and guilty of unconscionable actions? What makes us so eager to swallow the Chanel company’s own re-written history of the woman, a history that places Chanel in Switzerland during the war?
Things are rarely ever black and white. The people we were taught to admire end up having flaws that are repulsive. No amount of the “he was a man of his time” talk can justify the actions of Thomas Jefferson concerning the people enslaved on his properties. It’s hard to celebrate the life of Andrew Jackson knowing that his actions sent the Cherokee and other Native peoples on a deadly journey west.
The Chanel company has a long and important history – one that deserves to be told honestly. Would knowing Chanel was most likely a Nazi herself change the way people feel about the brand? Maybe, but knowing the story of Nazi Germany doesn’t keep people from traveling to Germany today. It does not keep us from buying Volkswagens. Knowing about Jefferson and Sally Hemings doesn’t keep us from appreciating his accomplishments.
It does seem to be a very strange time in history for Chanel to be pushing the persona of Gabrielle. Instead of concentrating on the Gabrielle Chanel myth (you know, like in this nonsense ad for Gabrielle perfume), a better approach would be to focus on the high level of craft and skill that is associated with Chanel. To see the value, you must watch Signe Chanel, which is a five part series on the making of a 2005 couture collection.