Coco Chanel

A new author of biographies for young people, Susan Goldman Rubin, introduces her third book for children 10-14-years-old, focusing on well-known artists.

By looking at the beginnings of Coco Chanel’s life, readers learn that she was born Gabrielle Chanel in Saumur, France. Her humble beginnings were plagued with poverty as her parents struggled to provide for their five children. Her childhood was difficult at best, and it colored her worldview for the remainder of her life.

Coco’s mother passed away when she was just 11 and with no remaining relatives who wanted to take care of Coco and her siblings, they were sent to an orphanage operated by sisters of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary. The nuns cared for her, but later in life, she described them as ‘good people, but absolutely without tenderness’.

Gabrielle’s Aunt Louise altered hats and sold them for a small profit while teaching her skills to Coco and her sisters. Later in the orphanage, Gabrielle learned sewing skills that would help her to become a seamstress. Before she was a world-renowned fashion icon, Coco got her start in fashion by altering hats and selling them herself, giving her the confidence to open her own haute couture shops.

Coco was set on combining both comfort and function for women, starting first with what she wore. Her pieces would often gain the attention of would-be buyers. For instance, while riding horses on a friend’s farm, she insisted on wearing pants rather than the traditional woman’s riding outfit, or sitting sidesaddle. Her actions made pants acceptable among women in her era. Her interest in boxy, sporty men’s clothing and fabrics was revolutionary in a time when long, corseted dressed women dominated the street scene.

Simple and well-made pieces were her hallmark. As her confidence as a designer grew, she expanded her work to create exterior pockets, open-neck polo shirts, and turtleneck sweaters for women’s wear. She rebelled against the overdone fashions found in layers and layers of fabric and too much color by creating “the little black dress,” an iconic piece still popular today. This singular statement resounded around Europe and across the seas to America revolutionizing what women wore from that point forward.

In 1920, she started to create her own perfume named for her favorite number, Chanel No. 5. At a time when women received floral scented perfume as gifts from lovers and husbands, Coco wanted to create a scent of her own choosing that did not rely on heavy floral notes. Her perfume recipe later became the foundation of her Chanel empire.

Coco Chanel’s combined skills as an artist, business person, and networker propelled her career forward opening fashion houses across Europe, even during times of war. Her friendships with famous people like Picasso, Winston Churchill, and others in France influenced her creative process and forged important alliances that aided her throughout her lifetime. Her impact on what women wear transcended her own lifetime making her an important designer for all ages.