Chanel was not the first woman designer to break into the male dominated world of fashion in Paris, Madeleine Vionnet and Jeanne Lanvin were already designing by the time Chanel opened her first milliner’s shop. The first major fashion house was created by an Englishmen Charles Worth. He was soon joined by Jacques Doucet and finally Paul Poiret, the man who released women from the straightjacket of the corset early in the 20th century. But Chanel was the first designer to use ordinary fabrics such as jersey, and flannel that were normally associated with the working classes in her designs, and the first to use design element usually found in men’s clothing such as open collared shirts, and men’s ties.
Like many Scandalous Women, Chanel was a master of reinvention. Along the way, she disavowed anyone who knew the true story of her early life. Chanel was born on August 19, 1884 in a hospice to Albert Chanel, an itinerant peddler and Jeanne Devolle. Her parents were not married, making her illegitimate, a fact that she kept hidden out of embarrassment. She was named Gabrielle Bonheur after the nun who took care of her mother. When she was 11, her mother died suddenly and her father disappeared from her life for good. None of Chanel’s relatives were interested in taking in five children, so they were quickly separated; Chanel and her sisters were sent to an orphanage run by nuns in Aubazine, while her two brothers were sent to a work farm. Chanel would later claim that she had been raised by maiden aunts who were cruel to her. Chanel and her sisters lived at the convent for six years, during which Chanel learned how to sew, but it was her Aunt Louise who Chanel spent time with during school holidays who taught her how to sew with imagination.. (more…)