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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
, 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.