Tag Archives: Coco Chanel

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.

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Currently Reading – Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History

I think I’d made the comment here that one thing the world does not need is another book about Coco Chanel.  Between 2009 and 2012, at least twelve books on Chanel’s life were published.  What more was there to say?

As it happens, I was wrong.  The world does need Mademoiselle:Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History , a book that at over 600 pages (including notes and references) attempts to set the story of Chanel’s life straight, and to place it and her work into the historical framework of the Twentieth Century.  It was a huge task, especially considering the myths surrounding the woman and her namesake business.

Through meticulous research and the locating of some key new resources such as the diaries and private papers of some of Chanel’s lovers, Rhonda Garelick has painted the most authentic portrait of Chanel to date. It isn’t as though there is a lot of new material, because there is not.  What makes this book so good is that Garelick cuts to the heart of the many conflicting stories about Chanel, and through her research comes up with the most plausible versions.  To add to the narrative, she also relates the alternate versions when there is any question as to the truth.

Most people writing about Chanel point out how she appropriated the clothing of her lovers.  What Garelick adds to this is how she also  absorbed and reflected their ideological and political views as well. Unfortunately, Chanel seemed to be attracted to men who were openly anti-semitic and who leaned toward fascism.

With the exception of Hal Vaughan’s Sleeping with the Enemy, most books about Chanel have reduced her life during the years between 1939 and 1945 to that of an aging romantic woman becoming infatuated with a younger German army officer.  With Mademoiselle, there is no white-washing of history.  Drawing on the research of Hal Vaughan, Garelick clearly presents the truth that Chanel was a spy for Germany.  There is also proof that she exposed an acquaintance as being Jewish, and that she went into at least one apartment that had been abandoned by its fleeing Jewish occupant and helped herself to art and antiques.

Garelick points out in her introduction that Chanel has become a popular first name for baby girls.  I’ve got to assume that the parents of these babies know nothing about Chanel the woman. As much as we might acknowledge her talent, Chanel was not a nice person, and she certainly would not be a good role model for your kid.

It also brings up the disturbing question of how much are we willing to overlook in the admiration of Chanel’s design talent and in the pursuit of style. Should we be like the Jewish Wertheimer family who continued to do business with Chanel even though she tried to “aryanize” their business during WWII, and who continue to protect her image even today?

Almost 45% of the book consists of end notes and the bibliography.  Unfortunately I was reading a advance reviewer’s copy on my e-reader and the notes were not linked.  I finally gave up tying to flip back and forth and read the notes at the end of each chapter.  They added a lot to the narrative.

My thanks to NetGalley and Random House.

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Currently Reading: Sleeping With the Enemy, Coco Chanel’s Secret War

In preparation for making my “French Couture” jacket, I decided to reread my books about Coco Chanel, and I bought a few new ones as well.  One that I’d been meaning to read was Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War.

If you have read any of the hundreds of books about Chanel, then you know that she closed her couture house before the Nazi takeover of France, and that during World War II she lived in the Ritz Hotel and took a Nazi lover.  But for the most part the years between 1939 and 1954, when Chanel reopened her house, are just sort of skipped over in writings about her.

This book by Hal Vaughan attempts to fill in the blanks.  Vaughan spent years studying documents in England, France, Germany, Spain and Russia.  What emerged from his research is a pretty sorry tale.

Though the book is primarily concerned with the war years, Vaughan starts with Chanel’s birth in 1883, and follows her rise to fame.   He takes a close look at the influences of her life in an attempt to explain (but not justify) the actions she took during WWII.

Chanel was born to poor peasant parents.  When she was twelve her mother died and her father took her and her sisters to a convent to be reared by nuns.   According to Vaughan this is where Chanel first encountered anti-Semitism, as she was taught that it was the Jews who had killed Christ.   These beliefs were strengthened through several of her relationships, including those with her lovers the Duke of Westminster and artist Paul Iribe.

She was also quite bitter about an arrangement she made with Pierre and Paul Wertheimer in 1923.  The Wertheimers were Jews who were in the perfume business.  Chanel entered into a legal relationship where she pretty much signed over the rights to make Chanel *5 in return for 10% of the profits.  Even though the arrangement made her wealthy, after a while she began to feel that she had been cheated by the brothers.

In 1936 Europe was in turmoil.  The Nazis were gaining strength, the Spanish were at war, and in France the government seemed to be moving toward Communism.  Many labor unions organized strikes, closing down industry, services, and shops.   In June all of Chanel’s employees closed down her shop and atelier.  Chanel was infuriated, and to a large extent blamed the French Prime minister, Leon Blum, who was Jewish.  After a standoff that lasted several months, Chanel gave in to the worker’s demands.

In 1939, after Germany invaded Poland and France declared war on Germany, Chanel abruptly closed her business.  She declared that war was no time for fashion, but Vaughan proposes the idea that this was Chanel’s way of getting even with her workers who had gone on strike three years earlier.  The closing of a couture house might not seem like a big deal, but the closure meant that 3000 workers lost their jobs.

As the Germans occupied Paris in 1940, Chanel took another lover, Nazi agent Gunther von Dincklage.  Vaughan suggests that Chanel first became involved with Dincklage because her nephew, Andre Palasse had been captured by the Germans.  She needed help getting his release from a German camp.  In 1941 she made a deal to obtain Andre’s release.  It involved Chanel going to Spain as an agent for Germany in return for his release.

After the occupation Chanel also tried to get back control of her perfume business, claiming that the Jewish Wertheimers could not be the legal owners under German law.  But the brothers had foreseen Chanel’s move and had signed over the company to an “Aryan”business associate.  After the war they had to fight him to regain control and were successful.

Throughout the war Chanel continued to made trips on the behalf of the Third Reich.  She was even involved in an effort of some Nazi officers to get a message to Winston Churchill, hoping to save their skin as it became obvious that Hitler’s regime was doomed.  During the years that Chanel had been the lover of the Duke of Westminster, she had become great friends with Churchill.  These officers attempted to exploit this relationship.

After the Liberation, life became quite difficult for those who had collaborated with the enemy.  Thousands of French citizens, including Chanel, were arrested.  In Chanel’s case, she was interrogated and released, possibly with the help of her old friend, Churchill.  She quickly fled Paris, going to live in Switzerland.  For a while she looked to be in the clear, but in 1946, her involvement was again questioned.  This time she denied all the charges, even though there were documents that contradicted her testimony.

For some years Chanel lived with Dincklage in Switzerland, but by 1951 she was by herself and at loose ends.  In 1953 she decided the time was right for her to return to fashion.  Her comeback show was in February, 1954, and was met with a lukewarm reception in Paris, but it was acclaimed in the Unites States.   Her company was in deep financial trouble, and an unlikely savior appeared to save it.

Pierre Wertheimer offered to buy the business, the Chanel name, and her real estate.  In return all  of Chanel’s expenses would be paid by the company and she would retain control of the couture house.  At 71 years of age, it was too good a deal to pass up.  It was a money maker for them all.  Chanel spent the rest of her life in comfort, and the Wertheimers became fabulously wealthy.  The family still owns Chanel.

This is a greatly simplified account of Vaughan’s research.  The evidence against Chanel is pretty clear – she was not just sleeping with the enemy, she was the enemy.   While Vaughan gives a convincing case for Chanel’s guilt, the writing is at times disjointed and hard to follow.  There is a lot of skipping back and forth in time, and so it helps to have a good grasp of the larger events of the 1930s and 40s.

It might be easy to say that Chanel lived a charmed life, that she escaped justice and instead of punishment, spent her later years in luxury.  But the truth seems to be that she was one unhappy individual for most of her life.   Her lovers never stayed, but instead, married others.  Her last years were spent in what she feared most, being alone.

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Filed under Currently Reading, Designers, World War II