CR Muse: The Legend of Coco Chanel


This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

Coco Chanel is one of the most well-known fashion designers of all time. Though she is sometimes simplified to something of a mascot—an authority on chic with bobbed hair, dripping in pearls—Chanel was a far more fascinating (and polarizing) figure than we give her credit for. “What’s wonderful about her is she’s not a straightforward, easy woman to understand,” Shirley MacLaine, who played the designer in the 2008 film Coco Chanel, once said. At once a brilliant designer, a shrewd businesswoman, and a social climber, her history is complex.

Chanel’s childhood could not have been further from the luxury that is associated with her name. Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born into poverty in 1883. Her mother passed away when she was only 12 years old, after which her father left her at an orphanage. It was at said orphanage where she learned to sew. As one of her early odd jobs, she sang in cafes, earning the nickname “Coco.” Where the name came from specifically is unclear—some say it was from a song name, others say it was short for “coquette.”

It’s easy to see where the “coquette” rumor came from. Chanel was an enticing young woman. She was strong willed and independent at a time when women were still burdened by social constraints. She easily earned the affections of wealthy men like Arthur “Boy” Capel, who became her financial backer in 1913, when she opened her a hat shop. Finding success among wealthy women, she expanded into clothing.

Interestingly, what set her apart was her rejection of everything that was previously considered luxurious. Her clothes were easy to wear and did not require corsets. She used jersey as her primary fabric at a time when it was reserved for men’s undergarments. Additionally, she was one of the first designers to embrace minimalism. By the 1920s, she hit her stride. Her perfume, Chanel No. 5, which she launched in 1921, was an immediate hit. She also captured the new, more independent spirit of women with her clothes. She introduced the little black dress, which has become a staple garment in most women’s wardrobes, and in 1954, she launched a version of the Chanel suit the house is best known for today: a boxy, collarless blazer with a fitted skirt.

The simplicity of her designs became her calling card, and her less-is-more approach has lead to several maxims still used as fashion advice today: “Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance,” “A woman can be overdressed but never over elegant,” and taking off the last piece of jewelry you put on before leaving the house all endure as tips for achieving an ease in style.

Despite her minimalist clothing, Chanel’s apartment at 31 rue Cambon was a decadent space. Located above her boutique in Paris, it was filled with leather-bound books, chandeliers, and extravagant knick-knacks, like engraved cigarette boxes and gold Venetian lions. But perhaps the most famous part of the apartment, which has remained unchanged since her death in 1971, is a mirrored staircase that leads down to where she presented her collections. Chanel would sit at the top, watching the reactions to her clothes.

Of course, her enduring couture house and thriving business is part of Chanel’s lasting legacy. An oft-repeated bit of trivia is that her perfume, Chanel No. 5, is sold every 30 seconds. But Chanel herself has also lived on as a caricature. Despite the fine details of her life, what seems to resonate with people most is her rags-to-riches story. She rose not only beyond her financial station, but also above the limitations her era put on women. “As a phenomenon, Chanel shoulders a lot of different narratives,” said Harold Koda, former curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Her life has a kind of mythic quality.”


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