15 Things You Didn't Know About Coco Chanel

Sasha/Getty Images
Sasha/Getty Images

Tweed jackets, the little black dress, menswear as womenswear: Coco Chanel is responsible for many of the innovations that still dictate women's fashion today. But there's a lot more to the designer than her gold-chained handbags, signature scent, and witty remarks—like her literal rags-to-riches story. Here are 15 things you might not know about the famed French fashion icon Coco Chanel.

1. Coco Chanel learned to sew at an orphanage.

Gabrielle Chanel sometime before 1914.
Gabrielle Chanel sometime before 1914.
Apic/Getty Images

Born Gabrielle Chanel on August 19, 1883, the future fashion designer came from humble beginnings. After her mother died when Chanel was around 12, her peddler father put her and her two sisters in a convent-run orphanage. The nuns there taught her to sew, and the stark black and white of their habits began to inform her design aesthetic.

2. Her nickname, Coco, most likely came from her brief time as a singer.

Coco Chanel, circa 1920.
Coco Chanel, circa 1920.
Kristine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

After leaving the orphanage at age 18, she worked in a tailor's shop during the day, and eventually began singing at French caf'concs, a sort of early-version cabaret show featuring bawdy verses sung in urban working class bars and restaurants. Chanel and her aunt Adrienne (who was just over a year older than Gabrielle) used these gigs to make extra money and flirt with the military personnel that were stationed in Moulins, France. The story goes that two of the songs Chanel was known to sing were "Ko Ko Ri Ko" and "Qui qu'a vu Coco dans l'Trocadéro?" ("Who's seen Coco at the Trocadéro?"), and the crowd would call for encores by shouting "Coco! Coco!" Of course, Coco is also a term of endearment for a child (and Chanel preferred telling of how her father would call her that), and it can also be a diminutive of cocotte, a French term for a kept woman—which she would soon become.

3. Chanel was a licensed milliner.

Coco Chanel in her Paris apartment, circa 1959.
Coco Chanel in her Paris apartment, circa 1959.
Kristine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

After her brief singing career, Chanel became a licensed milliner and opened a hat shop in 1910 called Chanel Modes, at 21 Rue Cambon in Paris. The venture was funded by Etienne Balsan, a wealthy heir to a textile empire whom she'd met when he was a young officer in Moulins; according to Lisa Chaney's biography Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life, Balsan "invited her to live with him as his mistress," and Coco readily accepted.

At her hat shop, Chanel got a lucky break when Gabrielle Dorziat, a famous French actress of the time, became a fan of Chanel's hats and sparked a trend. Later in Chanel's life, a hat became a signature accessory—photographer Douglas Kirkland, who spent three weeks documenting the designer in 1962, never saw her remove it.

4. She designed that famous Chanel logo herself.

The Chanel interlocking Cs logo
Kristine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Still emblazoned on handbag, earrings, necklaces, and dozens of other products, the famous interlocking "Cs" of the Chanel logo were created by the designer and first appeared circa 1924 on bottles for her signature fragrance, Chanel No. 5. The logo hasn't changed since. Theories on her inspiration vary, but many point to Catherine de Medici's royal insignia, which Chanel may have seen on a visit to a royal residence. Alternately, the same insignia is featured on the walls of Château de Crémat in Nice where, according to legend, Chanel had attended parties, and the two Cs obviously worked well with her name and branding.

Another possibility was that was an homage to English aristocrat and polo player Arthur "Boy" Capel, Chanel's longtime lover and the man whom she considered the love of her life; he died in an automobile accident just before Christmas 1919, leaving Coco devastated. It's speculated that the Cs could have been for Capel & Chanel—her way of keeping his influence and memory alive.

5. Her fragrance, Chanel No. 5, might have been the result of a lab mistake.

Bottle of Chanel No. 5
lilivanili, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The story behind Chanel's iconic perfume is full of twists and turns. In the early 1920s, Chanel worked with perfumer Ernest Beaux to create the scent. Reportedly, Chanel liked Beaux's fifth sample, leading to the now-famous name. (Also, five was said to be her lucky number.) But the scent, with notes of jasmine, rose, sandalwood, and vanilla, might have been the result of a laboratory mistake. The formula had an unusually high dose of aldehyde in it—a synthetic component that made the scent "sparkle." The fragrance and its groundbreaking, minimalist bottle design would go on to become one of the best-selling and most recognized perfumes in the world.

6. Chanel sparked a decades-long court case over her perfume.

Portrait of Coco Chanel
Kristine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In a business deal to launch Chanel No. 5 in department stores in 1924, Chanel kept her name on the bottle, but got only 10 percent of the profits. Businessman Pierre Wertheimer agreed to make the perfume in mass quantities, taking a 70 percent cut (Théophile Bader, the founder of famed Paris department store Galeries Lafayette, got the other 20 percent because he brokered the deal). Chanel waged war in the courts for years to try to sweeten her deal—in fact, the Wertheimer business eventually had a lawyer whose only job was to deal with Chanel.

7. Chanel was allegedly a Nazi agent.

Chanel in her suite at the Ritz hotel in Paris, 1937
Chanel in her suite at the Ritz hotel in Paris, 1937.
Kristine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

After Chanel's death in 1971, classified documents started to emerge that revealed the full extent of her dealings with the Nazis during WWII. Her decade-long affair with Hans Günther Von Dincklage, a German intelligence officer, was well known (she stayed ensconced at the Ritz during much of the Nazi occupation of Paris), but in his 2011 book Sleeping With the Enemy, journalist Hal Vaughan revealed that Chanel was involved enough with the Nazi agenda that she was referred to as Abwehr Agent F-7124—codename "Westminster." "There were legions of women of courage and derring-do throughout Europe, working hard to outwit the Nazis," The Washington Post's book review stated. "Chanel was not among them."

When the war was over, Chanel exiled herself to Switzerland before returning to Paris in 1954 to restart her fashion house. For their part, Chanel (the company) contested the claims in Vaughn's book, arguing that she had many close Jewish friends before and after the war and that her role during the Nazi occupation may have been more nuanced.

8. Chanel even enlisted Nazi help in the Chanel No. 5 fight.

A Chanel No.5 ad in a 1971 magazine.
A Chanel No.5 ad in a 1971 magazine.
Classic Film, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

During World War II, Chanel leveraged her Nazi connections and tried to use Aryan laws to push Pierre Wertheimer and his brother—who were Jewish—out of her business. Thanks to some last-minute business dealings that involved selling their majority stake to an Aryan businessman during the war, the Wertheimers were able to hold on to their investment and regain full ownership after the war. Incredibly, the Wertheimers eventually financed Chanel's return the fashion industry in the 1950s. The notoriously tight-lipped Wertheimer family refuses to give interviews or speak on their dealings or relationship with Coco Chanel, but they still own the Chanel brand to this day; it's worth $8 billion by recent estimates.

9. Winston Churchill was a friend of Chanel's.

Winston Churchill (right) is accompanied by his son, Randolph, and Coco Chanel at a meet of the Duke of Westminster's boar hounds in northern France, circa 1928.
Winston Churchill (right) is accompanied by his son, Randolph, and Coco Chanel at a meet of the Duke of Westminster's boar hounds in northern France, circa 1928.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Chanel had well-placed friends everywhere, including politicians. She met Winston Churchill in the mid-1920s through her then-lover, the Duke of Westminster. The duke—one of wealthiest men in the world and one with considerable influence—was close friends with Churchill (who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer), and the future prime minister was a regular at his home. Once, in a letter home, Churchill wrote that "the famous [Coco Chanel] turned up and I took great fancy to her—a most capable and agreeable woman … She hunted vigorously all day, motored to Paris after dinner, and today is engaged in passing and improving dresses on endless streams of mannequins. … She does it all with her own fingers, pinning, cutting, looping. Some have to be altered ten times." More than a decade later, during World War II, this old friendship was used by the Nazis to try to form an alliance with England.

10. Although Chanel had many affairs, she never married.

Gabrielle Chanel and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia, circa 1920.
Gabrielle Chanel and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia, circa 1920.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The only thing Chanel was more famous for than her fashions might be her storied affairs. Her many dalliances included a short-lived one with Pablo Picasso (Lisa Chaney's biography Coco Chanel, An Intimate Life describes its end as "Picasso [was] always quick to demand sexual and emotional subservience from his women, and Gabrielle being in many ways just as intense and formidable a character as he was, this affair could only have been a brief one"), the Duke of Westminster, the grandson of a Russian Tsar, and the composer Igor Stravinsky. When Stravinsky took to reworking his famed The Rite of Spring for a new staging with a Paris ballet company in 1920, Chanel was one of the primary patrons.

11. The Chanel bag made it acceptable for women to wear shoulder bags.

A Chanel ad, circa 1956.
A Chanel ad, circa 1956.
Kristine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In the 1950s, it was de rigueur for women of status to carry their purse in their hands. But in 1955, Chanel changed all that when she introduced the 2.55 Chanel Shoulder Bag (named for when it launched, in February 1955). The sleek bag featured quilted leather and a signature gold chain for the strap, making it glamorous for women to wear a bag on their shoulder.

12. Chanel made jersey fabric cool.

Illustration published in 'Les Elegances Parisiennes,' showing three women in day outfits by
Illustration published in 'Les Elegances Parisiennes,' showing three women in day outfits by "Gabrielle Channel" (sic) consisting of belted tunic jackets and full jersey skirts; March 1917.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Chanel first starting designing in the early 20th century, women's fashion relied on the corset, which made for tight, fitted, and uncomfortable styles. Chanel liberated the silhouette by using jersey—a fabric then primarily used for men's underwear. Jersey was inexpensive and it draped well, making it perfect for Chanel's early designs of simple dresses.

13. Chanel's also credited with popularizing the little black dress.

A Chanel little black dress and accessories photographed for French Vogue in 1964.
A Chanel little black dress and accessories photographed for French Vogue in 1964.
Kristine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Perhaps fashion's most enduring wardrobe staple—the one that can be reinvented and reworn a thousand different ways—was another one-time revolutionary idea that Chanel brought to the masses: the little black dress. Vogue coined the term in 1926, printing a Chanel design and comparing it to the Ford Model T in terms of universality (they called the dress "the frock that all the world will wear"). Although the LBD is considered a basic must-have now, at the time it was revolutionary because black was considered a color for those mourning.

14. Chanel even made getting a tan fashionable.

Coco Chanel at the French Riviera in the mid-1920s.
Coco Chanel at the French Riviera in the mid-1920s.
Apic/Getty Images

The LBD, striped shirts, perfume, menswear as womenswear: Everything Chanel did started a trend. And that includes suntans. In the early 1920s, when visibly spending too much time in the sun was still considered lowbrow, Chanel got a little too bronzed while out on a Mediterranean cruise with the Duke of Westminster. The resulting photos of her arrival in Cannes are often credited as setting off a desire for that sun-touched glow (which she soon capitalized on by creating the first line of tanning lotions for women).

15. Katharine Hepburn played Chanel in a Broadway musical.

Coco

, a 1969 musical based on Chanel's life, had a book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner (best known for the blockbuster My Fair Lady). Though Katharine Hepburn was a veteran stage actress, the four-time Oscar winner was not particularly known for her singing voice—and this was to be her one and only musical. The show only had 329 performances on Broadway, but thanks to YouTube, the company's performance at the 1970 Tony Awards is still available—it was nominated for seven Tonys that night and won two. Even if the musical didn't have staying power, at least the thought of one pioneer of the modern, trouser-wearing woman playing another feels very—how would you say?—je ne sais quoi.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.