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Coco Chanel's Fabulous Life Told in Photos

Humble Beginnings

Humble Beginnings

While she may have died one of the most famous women to ever rock the fashion world, Coco Chanel's birth was a much more humble affair. All the glitz and glamor would come later in her life, as she was born poor to a laundrywoman and a street vendor in a charity hospital run by nuns. 

Just before she was a teenager, her mother died and her father sent her and her sisters to live at an orphanage. While this may sound like a low point in Chanel's life, the orphanage was where she learned to sew, which was a skill that would drastically alter the course of her entire life. 

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A Star is Born

A Star is Born

Chanel didn't immediately become a fashion sensation. She spent her early years as a moderately successful seamstress while performing at cabarets at night. A singing career just wasn't in the cards for Chanel, who struggled to find consistent work, but this experience did give her one important thing: her nickname. 

She was born Gabrielle, but it was during this time period that she adopted her famous nickname "Coco". While she sometimes told audiences that her father had given her the nickname, there's not any evidence that that's actually true. Regardless of the actual origin, the nickname stuck, and a star was born! 

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A Change of Plans

A Change of Plans

Coco Chanel had some pretty wild dreams for her life, but she was nothing if not a realist. The French designer is famously quoted as saying, "Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door," and this no-nonsense attitude was apparent in her own major career change early on in her life. 

Before she became famous as a fashion designer, Coco Chanel dreamed of a career on the stage. As a singer and actress, she gave the world of show business a genuine try, but it became clear pretty quickly that it just wasn't in the cards for Chanel. The designer saw the writing on the wall and smartly pivoted to something she was much better at: fashion. 

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Looking for Love

Looking for Love

Coco Chanel found herself entangled with several very high-profile men that often supported her dreams and helped further her career. However, she never ended up officially tying the knot. That's honestly not too surprising though—there was clearly no man alive good enough for the great Coco Chanel! 

Her lovers included big names like Salvador Dali, Igor Stravinsky, and the Grand Duke of Russia. However, the man she loved most was Arthur Capel. Unfortunately, he died young at 38 in a car crash, at which point really threw herself full force into her career. 

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The Men in Her Life & Her Rise to Fame

The Men in Her Life & Her Rise to Fame

As a beautiful, fashionable woman, men were never in short supply in Coco Chanel's life. A few of them were especially important to her success in fashion, including Arthur Edward Capel, who gave her the money to open her first few boutiques. The only problem was that Capel was the friend of another man that Chanel was seeing! 

At the time, she described the situation like this: "Two gentlemen were outbidding for my hot little body." Coco Chanel is always good for a salacious, memorable quote! By 1920, Capel's investment in her had more than paid off and she was an established couture designer in Paris. 

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A True Trendsetter

A True Trendsetter

Coco Chanel is known for numerous fashion trends that she started and popularized. However, her influence extended far beyond clothing—she also paved the way for our modern-day obsessions with suntans! As crazy as it sounds, we owe her our thanks for getting golden and bronzed in the summer months. 

Before the 20th century, a suntan was a sign of being a low-class manual laborer. The upper classes tried to stay as pale and shielded from the sun as possible. However, by the 1920s, suntans were seen as glamorous, and that was all thanks to Chanel's personal love of sunbathing (and her ability to influence trends). 

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Jersey Girl

Jersey Girl

Coco Chanel didn't invent jersey fabric, but she was the first designer to make it fashionable. As Chanel was rising to fame, jersey was seen as common and low-class, and Coco bought it primarily because of its affordability. But in her hands, she transformed this ordinary fabric into something extraordinary. 

Her jersey dresses were an instant hit because of Chanel's ability to make the clothing both fashionable and much more comfortable than women were used to at the time. These early innovations truly embodied her famous quote: "Fashion has two purposes: comfort and love. Beauty comes when fashion succeeds." 

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The Pants Revolution

The Pants Revolution

Pants might not be a thing at all in women's fashion if it weren't for the opinions and designs of Coco Chanel. At the time when she was designing, it was nothing but dresses and skirts for the women of the world, but Chanel would eventually change all that for the better. 

Women's pants were already a thing during Chanel's life, but they were associated with World War 1 and women being forced to do the jobs that the male soldiers had left behind. However, in true Chanel style, she managed to make pants both stylish and comfortable—which were the hallmarks of all her fashion designs. 

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The Little Black Dress

The Little Black Dress

Aside from the popularization of jersey fabric, Coco Chanel's most famous contribution to the world of fashion is the little black dress. These days, the concept of a LBD is ubiquitous, but at the time, Chanel was a trailblazer and an innovator who correctly saw that sometimes simpler is better. 

One reason Chanel's little black dress took off was the fact that it allowed women to look fabulous without spending a ton of money. She even remarked that it allowed poor people during the Great Depression to "walk around like millionaires." The LBD has never been out of fashion and we've got Coco Chanel to thank for that!

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Suiting Up

Suiting Up

Coco Chanel once said, "Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman." And when it comes to the iconic Chanel suits, they are nothing if not impeccable. And, like many of her ideas, the trend to the fashion world by storm and continue to be popular. 

Chanel first introduced her suits in 1923, and they were quite revolutionary for the time, mostly because they were much more comfortable to wear than other ladies' suits on the market. Chanel even had her models test the suits to ensure they allowed good movement. From climbing the stairs to sitting down in a car, Chanel wanted her suits to be movable while still looking great. 

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The Man Behind Chanel No. 5

The Man Behind Chanel No. 5

The creation of Chanel No. 5, Coco Chanel's signature perfume, predates many of the other trends that she created and popularized. It was first developed in 1921 with the help of Ernest Beaux, a Russian perfumer. The famous scent got its name thanks to the fact that it was the fifth sample that Beaux presented to Chanel. 

Chanel No. 5 quickly became a popular perfume with all sorts of celebrity endorsements, including Marilyn Monroe, who famously said that Chanel No. 5 was the only thing she wore to bed! The trend of famous faces promoting the scent continues to this day, with French actress Marion Cotillard becoming the newest spokeswoman in 2020. 

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One Tough Lady

One Tough Lady

Coco Chanel may have been beloved by her customers and fans, but there were plenty who couldn't stand her...and the feeling was mutual! Chanel famously talked trash about several of her fellow designers, including Christian Dior, Cristobal Balenciaga, and Paul Poiret. She thought there was no one who knew a woman's body like she did—and she probably was right! 

Chanel was well aware of her own fighting spirit and saw a lot of herself in her birth zodiac sign of Leo. She famously once said, "I’m a Leo and like him, I show my claws to protect myself. But believe me, I suffer more by clawing than being clawed." 

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A Woman of the People

A Woman of the People

These days, Coco Chanel is seen as a figure of luxury and high fashion. And while she may have been one of the biggest figures in the world of clothing, she was anything but stuck up. In fact, she was very picky about who she would style, and royalty often found themselves getting the cold shoulder from the famous designer. 

Chanel was particularly annoyed that dukes and kings and queens and the like weren't willing to pay their fair share for her services. She was quoted as saying, "These princesses and duchesses…they never pay their bills. Why should I give them something for nothing? No one ever gave me anything." 

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Always Look Presentable

Always Look Presentable

When it came to fashion, Chanel thought that natural was better. She even famously quipped that "A woman is closest to being naked when she is well dressed." However, there was one thing that Chanel didn't like women baring: their faces. She was famously finicky about her models' makeup. 

The models for her fashion house allegedly weren't allowed to go makeup-less in her presence and would often frantically paint themselves to perfection when her arrival was imminent. However, she wasn't a hypocrite, as she was known to keep blush on her bedside table, lest someone see her without makeup. 

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Hats Off to Coco

Hats Off to Coco

Coco Chanel did all sorts of things in the fashion world, but her first big break came thanks to hats. She opened her hat shop, Chanel Modes, in 1910 with a little help from Etienne Balsan, the man she was seeing at the time. It wouldn't be long before destiny came knocking. 

While working in the store, she met French actress Gabrielle Dorziat who loved Chanel's hats and quickly popularized her designs. Coco's love of hats would continue through the rest of her life, and she was rarely (if ever) spotted in public without wearing one. 

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Coco: The Musical

Coco: The Musical

You know you've made it if someone writes a musical about your life, and that's especially true if they make it while you're still alive. In 1969, Coco debuted on Broadway and (loosely) followed the life and loves of Coco Chanel. While not the most famous musical of all time, the show still ran for a respectable 323 performances. 

For eight months of the show's run, Hollywood icon Katharine Hepburn portrayed the famous fashion designer. She also headed up the U.S. tour, which began its run only a day after Chanel had died. It was nominated for six Tony awards and ended up winning two of them. 

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Bringing Coco to Life

Bringing Coco to Life

Katharine Hepburn most famously portrayed the French designer in the musical Coco, and she was a bit of a prima donna in the role. She insisted that the theater be kept at a chilly 60 degrees and that the doors remain open at all times. Considering the show premiered in the fall, several cast and crew members got sick because of Hepburn's demands.

French actress Danielle Darrieux took over after Hepburn left the production, but she struggled in the role, as she was not as well known as Hepburn. Ginger Rogers gave the role a try during a 1971 tour, and most recently in 2010, actress Andrea Marcovicci brought Chanel to life on stage for 16 performances. 

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The Chanel Legacy

The Chanel Legacy

The world was devastated when Coco Chanel passed away in 1971, but that was far from the end of her story! The Chanel brand lives on to this day and has the distinction of being the oldest active couture house in history. The company is even still headquartered at the same location Coco established all those years ago. 

These days, the company is still known for their fine women's clothing and perfume, but they've also branched out into men's clothing and colognes, skincare, watches, and even wine! Chanel had no children to carry on the family business, so now the company is owned by Alain and Gerard Wertheimer. 

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A Dress Legend

A Dress Legend

Coco Chanel's "Little Black Dress" may be one of her most famous contributions to the world of fashion, but it was by far the only style of dress she created. While the LBD was all about beauty through simplicity, her other designs were often much more embellished and attention-grabbing. 

Many of her early dresses from the 1920s prominently featured complicated beading and embroidery motifs. These designs were heavily influenced by Slavic fashion, as she outsourced her beading and embroidery work exclusively to a fashion house in Russia. She was particularly fond of pairing bright, sparkling crystals with embroidery done in dark black. 

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Off to the Races

Off to the Races

At the peak of her fame, Coco Chanel met and worked with a lot of famous people around the globe. While she was known to dress and style Hollywood icons like Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Katharine Hepburn, celebrities weren't the only ones surrounding Chanel. 

In this photo from 1924, Chanel was spotted with Hugh Grosvenor, who was the Duke of Westminster at the time. Hobnobbing with British royalty at the horse races might seem a little odd for a French socialite, but Chanel still somehow manages to look great doing it! 

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A Gem of a Woman

A Gem of a Woman

Coco Chanel famously said, "Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity." And this thought was clearly on her mind when she was designing her iconic jewelry. Her looks were definitely luxurious, but they didn't rely on expensive stones alone. 

Chanel caused a stir in the world of jewelry when she began combining real, expensive jewels with cheaper costume jewelry. With her creativity, she managed to create pieces that looked much more expensive than they actually were. Strangely enough, this was a hit among the rich and famous, as they often worried about the safety of wearing real jewels in public. 

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Coco in Exile

Coco in Exile

Coco Chanel lived in numerous places during her life, and many of them still invoke her name to this day, including the Lausanne Palace in Switzerland. Chanel spent many years in this home in exile after her involvement with the Nazis during World War 2 was brought to light. 

Fans of Chanel can still relive the years Coco spent in the palace—but only if they're willing to pay! You can spend the night in the Coco Chanel Suite for a ridiculous $3,400. It costs a lot of money to live as Chanel did, and these palace prices prove it! 

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Chanel in America

Chanel in America

Was there ever a woman more French than Coco Chanel? We think not! That being said, the French fashion icon spent more than her fair share in the United States during her life. She originally visited in the 1930s but found the styles of Hollywood much too revealing for her tastes. 

When she returned in the 1950s, she received a hero's welcome from the press as she appeared at the opening of a new Neiman-Marcus location. In this photo, she's saying goodbye to Stanley Marcus himself as she boards a plane to return back to Europe. 

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Designer to the Stars

Designer to the Stars

Chanel revolutionized fashion for women worldwide, but she also spent a little time in her early years designing clothing for film. She famously traveled to Hollywood in the 1930s to design costumes for Goldwyn films and hated the experience, famously saying, "Hollywood is the capital of bad taste ... and it is vulgar." 

Despite her negative experiences, she still met an interesting ensemble of characters during her time in the states. Here, she is pictured with American actress Ina Claire, who found fame in the early years of moviemaking with performances in The Wild Goose Chase and The Puppet Crown

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Master of Disguise

Master of Disguise

Coco Chanel was known for saying that "a girl should be two things: classy and fabulous." But we think that "funny" should be added to classy and fabulous! If this picture is any indication, Chanel had just as much a sense of humor as a sense of fashion—and she wasn't afraid to look silly to get a laugh. 

In case you didn't notice, that's Chanel herself on the right, complete with a man's suit and beard! She's pictured here at a ball dedicated to the princess of  Faucigny-Lucinge and is pictured with French actor Marcel Herrand and the countess of Beaumont. Seems like it was quite the party if she was dressed like that! 

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It's Lonely at the Top

It's Lonely at the Top

As Coco Chanel grew older, she found herself getting lonelier, and her associates found her getting angrier and more difficult to deal with. Despite a successful comeback in the United States and the United Kingdom in 1954, it's clear that Chanel still wasn't happy with her life. 

However, her death would still come as a shock to those who knew her best. Up until the very end, she was still spending her days reminiscing and visiting with old friends, most of whom were fellow Parisian socialites from her younger days. 

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The End of an Era

The End of an Era

Coco Chanel lived an impressive 82 years, but every era must eventually come to an end. And in true Coco Chanel fashion, she died like she lived—with a little bit of mystery and a hilariously honest quote. And her death took the world by storm. 

In the days leading up to her death, Chanel had been feeling tired, but there was no indication of what was about to happen. Chanel was busy at work on her new spring catalog and had gone for an afternoon drive. She returned home, went to bed early, and announced to her maid, "You see, this is how you die." She passed away of unknown causes in her sleep on January 10, 1971. 

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Burying Chanel

Burying Chanel

Word quickly spread that Chanel had died, and the first lady of France at the time began preparing a massive funeral for the fashion icon. Unfortunately, stories of her involvement with the Nazis during World War 2 began to surface at the time, and the First Lady's plans were quickly canceled. 

However, Chanel still had a massive funeral held for her at L'église de la Madeleine in Paris where several big names like Salvador Dali and Yves Saint Laurent were in attendance. In true Chanel style, the models from the House of Chanel were in the front rows of the church for the service. 

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Her Je Ne Sais Quois

Her Je Ne Sais Quois

What was it that made Coco Chanel so famous and influential? There wasn't just one thing—it was a combination of a little bit of everything! She was talented, she was opinionated, she was controversial, and she wasn't afraid to go against the grain. All her contradictions and eccentricities just made people love her more. 

Chanel was known to say, "In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different," and it's clear that she lived this philosophy through and through. Her influence can still be felt in the fashion industry today, and the now-iconic Chanel brand doesn't seem to be going anywhere any time soon! 

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