Why We Love Her, Why We Can’t: Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel, the legendary designer, is by nearly all counts, a major feminist icon. However, her history and participation with the Nazis during WW2 makes this otherwise ultimate feminist fashion icon very far from completely admirable. While many argue that her Nazism was merely opportunism of the day (this brutally opportunistic nature was portrayed perfectly by Audrey Tatou in Coco before Chanel, which, incidentally was written and directed by a woman–Anne Fontaine), it doesn’t change the fact that this otherwise brilliant woman was a Nazi, or at least a Nazi sympathizer. Here are  a few reasons we mourn not having her as the would-be feminist icon of our dreams.

1. In some serious class activism, she levelled the elitist associations with jewelry in one fell swoop-by embracing costume jewelry, imitation pearls, and fake diamonds in all their glory. According to Sonya Abrego who wrote, “The Revolution Will Be Plasticized,”

Coco Chanel is credited with popularizing costume jewelry when she included strands of glass beads and fake pearls with her ’20s designs. She adhered to the principle that jewelry was meant to adorn the person, not to be a marker of class or a sparkling sign of how much money one’s husband made. Discussing her famous strands of glass beads, Chanel remarked that they were, “devoid of arrogance in an epoch of too-easy luxe.” By freeing jewelry from its connection to status (Chanel herself grew up poor), she made it accessible, democratic, and more reflective of the modern era.

-Sonya Abrego “The Revolution Will Be Plasticized” The WORN Archive

2. Shortly thereafter, she made diamonds a feminist statement

3. She didn’t design for the male gaze, or the male anything for that matter. Her iconic fragrance, (which is still today the world’s top-selling women’s perfume) Chanel No 5, was designed following her desire to make a fragrance for women in every sense.

4. She designed for practicality as well as style, always with women in mind. Clothes during her time were restricting of women’s movements, whether they were limiting the length of a step a woman could take, or restricting the waistline. She turned all that around by designing the perfect jacket.

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5. She owned and ran her own business, the boss lady, right from the very beginning…

6. …and near what some might consider to be the end, she rallied at 70 years of age and reopened her couture house, all because she was horrified at what male designers were doing to women’s bodies (see point #4). It ain’t over ’til it’s over, ya’ll.

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7. Further to point #6, she was a woman in charge of her own business in the public eye long before it was acceptable for a woman–unmarried, without children, from working class roots, and lacking in any formal education– to do so.

8. She said some good stuff including:

“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.”

“If a man speaks badly about all women, it usually means he was burned by one woman.”

“Fashion has become a joke. The designers have forgotten that there are women inside the dresses. Most women dress for men and want to be admired. But they must also be able to move, to get into a car without bursting their seams! Clothes must have a natural shape.”

Reasons she falls short:

1. She was a Nazi, and supported the creation of anti-Semitic propaganda. That alone is pretty much enough, and despite this, she enjoyed famed and fortune until the end of her life, suffering no consequences for her actions.

2. She was the mean girl of fashion--her rivalry with Elsa Schiaparelli was notable for how cutthroat it was, as Chanel is widely acknowledged to have landed the most punches in the most brutal fashion. With so few women in fashion at the time, it would have been super-important for Chanel to support her only other real peer, but she did not.

 

There is no doubt that many fashion icons and leaders are problematic, Chanel is one such icon. While her accomplishments have paved the way for many other women forging their way into a more equitable future, her story is a sobering reminder that feminism needs to embracing intersectionality every step of the way.

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