The Gabrielle Chanel Myth

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.

22 Comments

Filed under Designers, Viewpoint

22 responses to “The Gabrielle Chanel Myth

  1. I can live with her being a Nazi, but not people today denying it.

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  2. I enjoyed the trajectory of your story and feel also that I’d rather know the truth so that I can decide for myself a course of action. Unfortunately due to the overbearing growth of corporate power in our country, the truth can be rather easily sold to build a fantasy brand. Most of us want to believe that something that gives us pleasure is entirely innocent. We can do without the guilt thank you very much.

    Your blog is most enjoyable. I started creating wearable art in ernest about a year ago. I’m currently working on a collection of linen garments. The historical references are helpful.

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  3. Hi. I have Signe Chanel in DVD. It is, hands down, my favorite fashion documentary and I’m a fan of “Mr. Karl” for his talent. I admire Coco Chanel for what she has contributed to the world of fashion. That’s it. My husband was born at the end of the Nazi Occupation in France (He’s a generation older than I am) and the stories his family has told me are frightening, scary and sad. My father-in-law (who, sadly, passed away this summer), would always tell me that the Nazi occupation and WWII destroyed families–and it tore my husband’s family apart.
    My husband’s maternal grandfather, Andre Girard was very much involved in the Resistance. I knew all about Coco Chanel before the book came out.
    She was a horrible woman. And horrible because she sympathized with the Nazis. And as horrible as she was, she was a great talent.
    She’s dead. She is not longer controlling the company that bears her name. I have other reasons for not buying any Chanel goods and that has to do with a documentary that was on TV5 Monde some years ago about how Chanel has “houses” in Italy where immigrants from China come to live and work in the basements pumping out Chanel leather goods for the equivalent of around $33 USD. You know what the markup is. I think that is despicable. dishonest and criminal. I’m unsure if this is still going on, but–technically the bags were made in Italy.
    It doesn’t stop me from still loving “Mr. Karl” or admiring his talent or the talent of all the wonderful seamstresses that Chanel has on staff. The brand’s ethics just aren’t my cuppa tea.
    Whew, that was a long comment!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Anyone who loves clothing, or loves to sew, absolutely must watch Signe Chanel. It does make Karl look quite agreeable and it always makes me want to start a new sewing project!

      I have not seen the other documentary you mentioned, but that practice of cheap immigrant labor in Italy is becoming more well known.

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  4. Alice

    That ad was one of the most unintentionally funny things I’ve seen. I agree with stitching post.

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  5. One does not have to be a “Nazi” to “collaborate” with one. Survival often makes one do things against their own grain. There are many “horrible” people in the design/fashion world. I personally do not pay attention to “opportunists” compiling so called “facts” / value judging ramblings turning into print for instant financial gain and attention The world did not purchase her clothes / perfume based on her personal life This “review” of Chanel is sadly pedestrian.

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  6. If one “collaborates” with “Nazis”, that kinda makes you a Nazi too (let’s stop playing with air quotes here). The world didn’t purchase her clothes and perfume if she was a tool of someone else’s interests; if Ms Chanel was the indomitable force she’s been sold as, she knew what was going on and didn’t care.
    My favorite Chanel piece is Lagerfeld’s Supermarket/Hypermarket show of a few seasons back. Now THAT’s high fashion.

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  7. I would think it is hard to know anything about the world of fashion and see how it is so often built off the backs of the poor and oppressed and then feel comfortable venerating the people who profit from it. When the designer was also a Nazi sympathizer, well…I think using her image to sell the line or her name to sell perfume is grotesque. But it fits in perfectly with our culture.

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  8. She was a terrible employer as well. I don’t understand the cult of Chanel the woman.

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  9. There are a lot of things that get swept under the rug about historical/famous figures, such as Coco Chanel, especially when their stories are transformed into inauthentic marketing schemes. I hope that people are inspired by your post to look for the facts and search through history for themselves, to learn what they can and develop their own informed opinion.

    Hugo Boss is another huge fashion house and it, quite literally, has its roots in designing Nazi uniforms before and during WWII. However, that’s not something that seems of a concern to consumers when they’re buying HB cologne, suits, or watches, so it will likely be the same for Chanel.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. KeLLyAnn

    Great article! I’m going to have to have to watch this Signe Chanel, sounds very interesting.

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  11. “Knowing about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings doesn’t keep us from appreciating his accomplishments.” WRONG, at least for me. A bastard and a hypocrite. Taints every opinion I have ever had about him.

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