Surprising findings and little-known facts about Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel

Ex-Harper's Bazaar editor shares how the ongoing Victoria & Albert Museum retrospective shows Chanel's association with the Royal family, how she helped the resistance during World War II, and liberated women from sartorial restrictions of early 20th century.

Harper's Bazaar India

The much-anticipated exhibition that is on at the Victoria & Albert Museum, ‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’, is the first show in the UK dedicated to Chanel’s work, and testament to her artistic genius. Spanning the entirety of her career, there are 200 outfits on display, including her famous little black dresses, soft tweed jackets, and a sailor-collar silk-jersey blouse from 1916 that remains notable for its insouciant simplicity. The V&A retrospective was in part the catalyst for my returning to Chanel with a new edition of my biography of this legendary designer who transformed herself into her own most powerful creation. Certainly, my illuminating conversations with the show’s curator, Oriole Cullen, have been crucial; but so, too, were my years as an editor of Harper’s Bazaar. For if one is to truly understand the ways in which Chanel came to define sartorial liberty and independence, the archives of Bazaar form a significant guide, as do her connections with previous editors of the magazine. It is through these affiliations that Chanel emerges as a rare exemplar of the female gaze: an exceptional status that continues to make her relevant today, more than a century after she achieved her place at the vanguard of modernist design.

It is now 25 years since I first started researching Chanel, but she still has the ability to surprise me. In the course of her long life—which began in poverty and obscurity in 1883, when she was born the illegitimate daughter of an itinerant peddler, and ended in 1971, by which time she had become a fabled fashion icon—Chanel recreated her story many times over. She made herself almost impossible to pin down, yet her elusiveness and infinite capacity to astonish remain part of her continuing mystique. 

One such example in my recent research came when I was studying a portrait of Chanel by François Kollar that first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in November 1937: she is standing in her suite at the Ritz in Paris, beside the fireplace, wearing a full length black-lace gown and a magnificent jewelled pendant. Behind her is a large mirror and one of her antique Coromandel screens; she looks poised, graceful, the incarnation of sophisticated style. Chanel was then 54, although her age seems irrelevant, and her outfit would still be as appropriate today as it was on the day she was photographed for Bazaar. But it was the bust of a man’s head on the mantelpiece that startled me when I examined it more closely, and suddenly realised that it was King Edward VIII, during his brief reign before his abdication in December 1936. 

We know that Chanel approved of this portrait, so much so that she subsequently chose it as an advertisement for Chanel No 5—the first time that she had used a photograph of herself to promote her perfume. But is it fanciful to wonder if she was also giving a clue about her past? Her right arm rests on the mantelpiece, her hand reaching towards the King’s head, a finger apparently pointing towards him. And that gesture sent me back into my own files of research and interview notes, amassed over a quarter of century, and thence to Royal archives, to reassess Chanel’s relationship with Edward VIII. What emerged is that she first met him when he was the Prince of Wales, in the early of months of 1924, while she was being ardently pursued by his friend, Bendor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster. The Prince of Wales appears also to have embarked upon a courtship of Chanel, inviting himself to her home in Paris, where they drank cocktails together, then taking her out to dinner, and dancing at a nightclub. 

Chanel was still involved with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, a first cousin of the Tsar, who had escaped to Paris after the Russian Revolution in 1917. By the spring of 1924, she had left him for Bendor, but not without considering the possibility of a liaison with her other English suitor. "Out of my three chaps," she told a friend, "the Prince of Wales, Dmitri of Russia, and the Duke of Westminster, I chose the one who protected me best." In the end, of course, she relied on herself, refusing to marry anyone and remaining entirely her own woman. Hence the apocryphal story of her declaration: "There have been many Duchesses of Westminster, but only one Coco Chanel."

Even so, Chanel’s longstanding relationship with the Duke of Westminster brought her often to the UK—staying at his homes in London, Cheshire, and Scotland. Through him, she became friends with Winston Churchill in the 1920s, and the designer of choice for aristocratic Englishwomen (including the vivacious Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who married the Prince of Wales’ younger brother, Prince Albert, in 1923, before his ascent to the throne as George VI in 1937). Yet despite Chanel’s growing reputation in British society, both as a sought-after couturière and the sophisticated consort of Westminster (reputedly the richest man in Europe), her sartorial principles remained straightforward: that a woman should be able to dress with the same effortless comfort and assurance as a man. This, she conveyed with her customary aplomb in the August 1925 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, in the form of a letter from the Scottish Highlands, where she described herself as ‘knee-deep in water, catching salmon’. (She was holidaying with Bendor at the time, and proving herself to be as deft with a fishing rod as she was with her seamstress’ scissors.) Chanel’s views on ‘la mode’ were characteristically succinct, telling readers: "My style in clothes is the result of life as it is lived today. It is practical, simple, but elegant." 

This approach would prove to be profoundly influential, both personally and professionally, on the two women who shaped Harper’s Bazaar, and the wider fashion industry, from the 1930s onwards: Carmel Snow, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, and the fashion editor, Diana Vreeland. Both began dressing at Chanel in the 1920s, before they started working at Bazaar. "My first allegiance was to Chanel, because the freedom of her clothes was so congenial to me,’ remarked Snow, who bought one of the designer’s little black dresses in Paris in 1926, when they were already synonymous with chic.

Diana Vreeland was similarly influenced by Chanel’s visionary style, which afforded women an unruffled composure that had previously been the preserve of men. ‘A woman dressed by Chanel back in the Twenties and Thirties,’ she recalled in her memoir, ‘walked into a room and had a dignity, an authority…’ Vreeland was equally admiring of the precision of Chanel’s post-war suits, which never looked dated, and continued to advocate for these during her time at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1970s and early 1980s: "The tailoring, the line, the shoulders, the underarms, the jupe—never too short, never making a fool of a woman when she sits down—is even today the right thing to wear."

It therefore seems appropriate that Vreeland was wearing Chanel when Snow first decided to hire her for Bazaar in 1936. Legend has it that Snow was prompted to do so as soon as she caught sight of Vreeland in a white-lace Chanel dress, with roses in her black hair, dancing in a New York nightclub. "I loved my clothes from Chanel," Vreeland remarked in later life, describing them with the fondness of a mother remembering her children. One of her favourite outfits was made of shimmering silver lamé, a skirt and bolero ‘quilted in pearls’, worn with ‘the most beautiful shirt of linen lace’. Another, a glamorous black-sequin trouser-suit and ivory-chiffon blouse, dating from 1937–1938, will be on display at the V&A; as Oriole Cullen observes, "It exemplifies how Gabrielle Chanel’s designs transcend moments in fashion and perfectly illustrates her manifesto—a timeless approach to design, which is built on modernity, movement and ease." 

When war was declared in September 1939, Snow and Vreeland were the last of the magazine staff to leave Paris; Snow stayed on to write an eye-witness dispatch for Bazaar’s October issue, while Vreeland was determined to have her final fitting for a Chanel dress. "I was so depressed," said Vreeland, "leaving Chanel, leaving Europe." On her last evening in Paris, she strolled up the Champs-Elysées, wearing the little black dress that had just been finished for her in Chanel’s couture atelier before it closed for the duration of war, along with ‘beautiful, absolutely exquisite black slippers like kid gloves’.

Vreeland was as beguiled by Chanel’s personality as she was by her skill as a designer: "She was extraordinary. The alertness of the woman! The charm! You would have fallen in love with her. She was mesmerising, strange, alarming, witty… you can’t compare anyone with Chanel." 

Snow, while no less of an admirer of Chanel’s style, was not blind to her activities during World War II, including her notorious affair with a German diplomatic attaché in Paris named, Hans Günther von Dincklage. A suave and plausible charmer known to his friends as Spatz, he had previously been involved in relationships with several smart, rich Parisiennes. The handsome son of a Prussian baron and a British mother, he also spoke fluent English, and seems likely to have first encountered Chanel in London before the war. 

Although Snow never mentioned the affair in the pages of Bazaar, either during the war or after, she did refer to it in a letter to her family, when she returned to Paris in early 1945. "Chanel lives alone, never sees a soul, just walks from the Ritz to her apartment in the shop," she wrote. "Apparently her German was the most beautiful of the Germans, spoke English perfectly, and was the tops of a Spy (sic), for years before the War started. Evidently Coco never denounced anyone, or I presume she would be in jail."

In fact, Chanel had been questioned in Paris soon after the Liberation in August 1944, by the Forces françaises de l’intérieur (FFI). There was speculation that she had produced letters from Winston Churchill, assuring her of his support, in order to counter any potential accusations of collaboration. But, although her friendship with Churchill was undoubtedly genuine, Chanel had also provided vital help to the Resistance on a number of occasions. Her Riviera villa, La Pausa, had extensive cellars that were used by a local Resistance group to send covert messages via a hidden transmitter, and to hide Jewish refugees escaping across the French border. Robert Streitz, the young architect who had become acquainted with Chanel when he was designing La Pausa for her in 1929, subsequently sought and received her assistance for his wartime activities in the Resistance. This may explain why Chanel is listed as a member of the Resistance in a document that I recently discovered in the official French archives: intriguingly, her name appears in a secret file relating to a covert network known as ERIC, which supplied intelligence to the Allies. Another link existed through her loyalty to the poet, Pierre Reverdy, an active resistant who had been a former lover of Chanel, and was still close to her during the war (indeed, their friendship continued until his death in 1960).

Many believed that Chanel had no need to reopen her couture house after the war, particularly as she was financially secure, thanks to the continuing revenue from her perfume sales; but Carmel Snow was swift to offer encouragement and support when Chanel finally made the decision to return. "When will your collection be ready?" she enquired in a telegram dispatched from New York to Chanel in Paris on September 24, 1953. "Will be happy to help you." 

Chanel responded with a letter in which she explained that ‘during the summer I got the idea that it would be fun to go back to work, because work is all my life’. When she launched her comeback collection on February 5, 1954, the French press were hostile, but Snow remained loyal, as did Vreeland, and both championed the liberating appeal of her signature tweeds and easy jersey suits. Snow also commissioned a laudatory feature on Chanel in Bazaar, written and illustrated by their mutual friend, Jean Cocteau, and continued to provide unstinting editorial support. The readership responded enthusiastically and so, too, did buyers around the world, with orders flooding in for Chanel’s supple tailoring, which was welcomed by all those women who chafed against the reintroduction of post-war corsetry.

Yet it wasn’t simply the clothes that attracted a new generation of admirers. Even at the age of 71, Chanel was still her own best advertisement, her pearls shimmering against a white-silk shirt and cream-tweed jacket, trimmed with black grosgrain ribbon. "Mode passes, style remains," she observed. And in being true to herself, Coco Chanel seemed yet again to express the mood of an epoch, while always remaining one step ahead. Little wonder that the forthcoming V&A exhibition has proved to be its most popular ever in ticket sales: the eternal allure of Chanel continues to draw us in.

This piece originally appeared in the October 2023 print edition of Harper's Bazaar UK.