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How Coco Chanel became a class act

Audrey Tautou in Coco Before Chanel (2009)

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel has become known as a “right-wing collaborator”, says Lisa Chaney in UnHerd. During World War Two she lived at the Ritz in Paris, which had been requisitioned by Nazi officers, and took a German spy as a lover. But this obscures a far more important part of her politics: “her class, or lack of it”. Chanel was the daughter of street vendors; after her mother died when she was 11, her “semi-pauper ratbag of a father” dumped her in a convent orphanage. Despite the heights to which she rose, she wasn’t allowed to forget her origins. In 1923, the “vastly wealthy” heiress Winaretta Singer threw a lavish party. When asked why Chanel wasn’t invited, she said: “Oh, I don’t entertain my tradespeople.”

Chanel hit back with her clothes. The new V&A exhibition on the fashion designer shows off an “exquisite” red evening dress cut in the “humble cotton velvet” of working women. Her jerseys are decorated with fur, that traditional status marker, “but it is the fur of the downmarket rabbit”. Nevertheless, her rich clients “scooped them up”, as they did with her clothes featuring pockets, which were once considered “unladylike”. Before Chanel, black dresses were only for servants or mourning. And when, by the end of the 1920s, she had finally conquered Parisian society, she would host supper parties without servants: guests had to serve themselves at plate warmers lined up on a table.