LA GRANDE MADEMOISELLE We trace the enduring legacy of Coco Chanel through Bazaar’s treasure-filled archives
Elegant, enigmatic, eternally alluring… Gabrielle Chanel was the greatest designer of the century, yet also the most elusive. Justine Picardie explores the treasure-trove of Bazaar’s archives, in search of lost pearls of wisdom and long-hidden secrets
In the tapestry of Bazaar’s history, myriad threads have been woven together – the countless stories and images contributed by visionary writers, editors, artists, photographers and designers – but one of the very few constants in this intricate pattern is Gabrielle Chanel. Her name first appeared in the pages of the magazine in the February 1915 edition – nearly five years after she had set up her business in Paris, initially as a milliner, and then as a couturière. Harper’s Bazar (as it was still known at the time; the second ‘a’ was introduced at a later date) referred to Gabrielle Chanel as ‘a canny little French woman and very exclusive’, whose fur-trimmed white sweaters were as desirable as her blue-striped jersey coats. In November 1916, the magazine included an illustration of Chanel’s ‘charming chemise dress of grey silk jersey’; and in October 1920, she received several pages of coverage for her latest couture collection, accompanied by a series of graceful drawings. One is particularly striking: a leading French actress of the day, Cécile Sorel, is shown in a black satin and lace evening gown designed by Chanel, worn over what Bazaar described as ‘black crepe de Chine pantalets’ (in other words, trousers, an item of clothing that Chanel had popularised, at the same time of ridding fashion of corsets).
At this point, Gabrielle Chanel was recognised for her skill as a couturière, but was only beginning to be famous in her own right. She had been born into poverty and obscurity in 1883, the illegitimate second daughter of an itinerant market trader who abandoned his five children when their mother died. The 11-year-old Gabrielle was sent with her two sisters to live in an orphanage that was run by Catholic nuns at Aubazine, a mediaeval abbey in the remote mountains of rural France. By the time she escaped to Paris in her twenties, she had already navigated her way through the uncertain life of a demi-mondaine, as the mistress of a rich playboy, Etienne Balsan, who she had met while working as a seamstress. After several years with Balsan, Chanel fell in love with one of his polo-playing friends, a wealthy Englishman named Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel. It was Capel, the son of a self-made man, but also a successful industrialist in his own right, who encouraged Chanel to set up in business; and he was undoubtedly the love of her life. Yet even before his tragic death in a car accident in December 1919, he had already betrayed her by marrying an aristocratic young Englishwoman (Diana Capel, who was pregnant with their second daughter when Boy was killed, driving in the South of France).
Chanel’s romance with Capel had not ended with his marriage, and she was heartbroken when he died; but her discipline and capacity for hard work were undiminished, and she invested the money that he left her in his will (£40,000 – a fortune at the time) in her expanding business. And though her mourning for her lost lover was profound, she subsequently began another relationship, with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, a first cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, who had managed to escape Russia before it was consumed by the violence of the Revolution, and ended up (more or less penniless) in Paris in the early 1920s. Chanel was also a loyal friend and generous patron to Sergei Diaghilev, supporting the Ballets Russes, along with a number of avant-garde artists, writers and musicians (including Igor Stravinksy, with whom she may have had an affair). None of this was mentioned in the pages of Bazaar, other than a passing reference to the ‘Russian inspiration’ of her ‘prettily patterned tricot blouses’ that were being worn by fashionable women in Cannes and elsewhere. But Chanel’s rise to the upper echelons of smart Parisian society was evident in the increasing frequency of her appearances in the magazine.
In February 1923, the leading article in Harper’s Bazaar was an interview with Gabrielle Chanel, by the photographer and writer Baron de Meyer. (De Meyer – a flamboyant figure dubbed ‘the Debussy of photography’ by Cecil Beaton – had joined the Paris office of Bazaar the previous year.) This was the first time that Chanel herself had been the focus of such intense interest in the magazine, with DeMeyerdescribingtheirencounterafewmonthspreviously:‘Ihad sat at dinner next to a little lady with dark curly hair. She had worn a white gown, simply made, an embroidered white coat trimmed with Russian sable, and a quantity of the most luscious pearls about her neck.’ Aside from her beautiful outfit, he had been impressed by ‘her brilliant mind, precise and accurate, absolutely original’. It was this remarkable originality, he suggested, that made her such a compelling subject for his readers’ attention: ‘Her name is Gabrielle Chanel. Incidentally, she happens to be the designer and pervading spirit of the Maison Chanel, one of the most exclusive spots in Paris, where women gather to have gowns designed, and where elegance, real elegance, reigns supreme.
‘It is, however, not my attention to speak to you of Chanel the dressmaker – you all know of her, and as such she is famous – but to present to you Gabrielle Chanel… the woman of refinement and faultless taste.’
Chanel would turn 40 in 1923, and had been in business for 13 years, though De Meyer presented her as an alluring blend of youth
‘To my mind,
simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance’
and experience: ‘The quintessence and incarnation of our modern times… with a genius for commercial enterprise, which has made this almost slip of a girl become in a few very short years an arbiter of fashion and the owner of one of the most individual dressmaking establishments in Paris. She is modern to her pink fingertips, goes straight ahead, ruthlessly dislodging accepted tradition, should she find tradition to have outlived itself !
‘In her many enterprises, for besides her maisons de couture in Paris, Cannes, and Biarritz, she directs her own factories of perfumery and keeps an active eye on the weaving of her own textiles, she remains her own manager. Everything undertaken by her, and she says she is only beginning her career, is undertaken from a novel and unbiased angle. She never hesitates to use her assertive brain intelligently and with ever increasing results.’
Thus Chanel became the embodiment of female strength and independence for the readers of Bazaar, as well as a sartorial leader. And for all the exclusivity and luxury that cloaked her couture house, she also appeared to offer hope to a wider audience that might not have been quite as affluent as the elite who peopled the society pages of Bazaar. As Chanel herself observed to De Meyer: ‘A woman with few gowns and a small allowance for her clothes can be, and often is, much better dressed than some of her richer friends. It is not necessary to have sables and chinchillas and many strings of pearls to be really elegant… Discrimination, taste, restraint… those are the essentials of real elegance… To my mind, simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.’
The final sentence has survived the ensuing decades, becoming one of Chanel’s oft-quoted aphorisms; but it is intriguing to see her words in their original context. Thereafter, Chanel was a mainstay of Bazaar, as frequently cited for her good taste, intellect and artistry (including collaborations with her friends Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dalí) as she was for her couture, jewels, accessories, perfumes and beauty products. As a biographer of Chanel, I continue to be endlessly fascinated by the clues to her life that are hidden within the Bazaar archives. Here, for example, is one that emerges from another article by the indefatigable Baron de Meyer, in the August 1925 issue, which includes a letter from Chanel, explaining that she is ‘in Scotland, knee-deep in water, catching salmon’. This unlikely scene came about as a consequence of her relationship with the Duke of Westminster, who she had first met in Monte Carlo at the end of 1923. Their long affair took her to his sporting estate in the Scottish Highlands, where she proved to be as adept at salmon fishing as she was at the art of couture, and it was in Scotland, too, that she came to know Winston Churchill, one of the Duke’s oldest friends. (Churchill grew fond of Chanel, and approved of the relationship; during a subsequent fishing expedition, in October 1927, when he was staying with her and the Duke – who he affectionately dubbed Bennie – he wrote to his wife Clemmie that ‘Coco fishes from morn till night, & in two months has killed 50 salmon. She is vy [very] agreeable – really a gt [great] and strong being fit to rule a man or an Empire. Bennie vy well & I think extremely happy to be mated with an equal – her ability balancing his power.’)
More evidence of her time with the Duke appears in Bazaar, in glowing reports of the ‘exceptionally good tweeds’ that ‘Mademoiselle Chane lh erself ’ had discovered on visits to Scotland, and her unsurpassed skill in using these to design the most appropriate sporting outfits. ‘My style in clothes is the result of life as it is lived today,’ she tells the readers of Bazaar in 1925. ‘It is practical, simple, but elegant.’
As time passed, it became clear that Chanel’s approach not only
reflected Bazaar’s idea of Parisian chic, but was also an integral element of the wider life that the magazine proposed for its readers. Chanel represented independence – the freedom to go fishing, work for a living, fall in love, fall out of love, dance until dawn, travel wheresoever she chose – and these were the liberties that were also celebrated in Bazaar. In the words of Carmel Snow – one of the magazine’s most influential editors, and a friend as well as an admirer of Chanel’s – Bazaar epitomised ‘elegance, with a dash of daring’, a phrase that might equally well be applied to Gabrielle Chanel.
Hence, Chanel was integral to the iconography of Bazaar ; for example, when Carmel Snow first spotted Diana Vreeland (who was to be the magazine’s iconic fashion editor for nigh on 28 years), she was dancing in a nightclub, wearing a white lace Chanel dress with a rose in her black hair. As far as Vreeland was concerned, Chanel was the greatest designer of all time; in her words: ‘Chanel saw the need for total simplification. Corsets, high heels, skirts dragging in the dust had to go. She anticipated the women of the 20th century.’ But it was not just her skill as a couturière that Vreeland admired: ‘The art of living was to Chanel as natural as her immaculate white shirts and neat little suits.’ This, added to a sharp wit and questioning mind, said Vreeland, made Chanel ‘the most interesting person I’ve ever met’.
And Bazaar remained loyal to Chanel, despite the vicissitudes of fashion. After she closed her business at the outbreak of World War II, she faced savage criticism in Paris with her comeback collection in 1954; yet Carmel Snow, Diana Vreeland and their colleagues at Bazaar offered support, and a real enthusiasm for what they recognised as Chanel’s timeless quality. New photographers, including Richard Avedon, were commissioned to capture Chanel’s clothes in motion – modelled by lithe young women, dancing and leaping along the streets of Paris, London and New York. It is testament both to Chanel’s expertise and Bazaar ’s creative vision that these images from the Fifties and Sixties look as fresh and compelling today as they did when they were first published; just as Cocteau’s illustrations of Chanel are as entrancing now as ever before.
When Chanel died at the age of 87, in January 1971 – still hard at work on a new couture collection – Bazaar’s obituary of the woman they called ‘La Grande Mademoiselle’ was simple yet heartfelt. ‘Her secret motto was “To thine ownself be true” and she was true to herself and to her friends… Coco will remain within our hearts. She is, for us, an example of courage and leadership.’
As she was then, so she is now; for Gabrielle Chanel continues to be a spirit of inspiration, and a reminder that, as she herself observed, ‘fashion passes, style is eternal…’
A new edition of Justine Picardie’s ‘Coco Chanel: the Legend and the Life’ (£22, HarperCollins) is out now.
This page: an illustration of a Chanel gown by Jean Cocteau from the July 1937 issue of Bazaar. Opposite: a Chanel look photographed by Erik Madigan Heck for our
February 2016 issue
Above and opposite, inset: contemporary Chanel jewellery
Coco Chanel at the Ritz in Paris, as featured in Bazaar ’s October 1937 issue
Portraits of Coco Chanel by Jean Cocteau from the June (right) and April (opposite)
Chanel looks in Bazaar, clockwise
from below: an illustration from the
September 1935 issue. Lily Donaldson photographed by David Slijper for October 2015. A Patrick Demarchelier
shot from the September 1996 issue
Chanel photographed ‘after Watteau’ by George HoyningenHuene for the November 1939 issue