Coco Chanel’s Life is a Rags to Riches Story

Coco Chanel was born in 1883 in Saumur, France, and she spent her earliest life, along with four siblings, in a one-room house.

When Chanel was 12 years old, her mother died, and her father abandoned her and her two sisters at a Catholic orphanage at Aubazine, where the Order of St. Mary had been established to take care of the poor–especially the young, poor, and dejected girls.

There are conflicting reports about Chanel’s childhood. Chanel herself is said to have embellished her own humble history, but most reports say that it was at Aubazine that Chanel was named Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, and that it was at Aubazine that Coco [Gabrielle] learned to sew. Apparently, the children at Aubazine were expected to work hard, and they live a frugal and disciplined life. It was the sewing that she learned as a child at Aubazine that probably saved her from a continued life of poverty.

When Chanel was 18, she was too old to remain at Aubazine and was sent to study at the Notre Dame School at Moulins. While she was at Notre Dame, Chanel was united with her aunt who was only a year older than she. Her aunt’s name was Adrienne. While she was was at Notre Dame, Chanel continued to study sewing.

“The Mother Superior at Notre Dame found employment for Adrienne and Gabrielle as shop assistants and seamstresses in a draper’s store on the rue de l’Horloge, which sold trousseaux and mourning clothes to the local gentry, as well as layettes for newborn babies. The girls shared an attic bedroom above the shop, and also worked at the weekends for a nearby tailor, altering breeches for cavalry officers. It was there that Gabrielle and Adrienne were spotted by half a dozen men, who started taking them out to La Rotonde, a pavilion in a park in Moulins, where concerts were held for audiences from the local barracks.

“They were rowdy affairs – a combination of music hall and soldiers’ saloon – but Gabrielle was determined to start singing on stage, and eventually found a regular slot. She had only two songs in her repertoire: ‘Ko Ko Ri Ko’ (its refrain was the French version of ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’) and ‘Qui qu’a vu Coco? ‘, a ditty about a girl who had lost her dog. Soon the audience greeted her with barnyard cockerel calls, and christened her…[Coco].”

Things changed for Coco Chanel. As an adult, she lived at the Ritz in Paris for 37 years.

ca. 1965, Paris, France — French fashion designer, Coco Chanel, standing in her Paris apartment at 31 rue Cambon, with her back to a mantled fireplace, with a large mirror above, looking up at a chandelier. — Image by © Condé Nast Archive/CORBIS’



Place Vendôme, amb el Hotel Ritz a l´esquerra

“There are people who have money and people who are rich.” – Coco Chanel

On several occasions, Chanel expressed a suspiciousness about richness, wealth, and luxury, but her life’s mission seems to have been that of escaping her own poverty. I feel quite sure that Chanel’s efforts to “pull herself up by her boot strings” was less than delicate.

FRANCE – CIRCA 1936: Coco Chanel, French couturier. Paris, 1936. LIP-6958-108. (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

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“Gentleness doesn’t get work done unless you happen to be a hen laying eggs.  – Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel formed liaisons with rich lovers, and that undoubtedly helped her elevate herself, but the Coco Chanel fashion statement was one of simplicity.

“It is always better to be slightly underdressed.” – Coco Chanel

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Chanel’s earliest business venture seems to be that of designing and creating hats. Although some of her hats were extravagant, most were not. In fact, Chanel began her career as a milliner by buying very plain Boater Hats and by decorating them with simple bands of ribbon.

The above image is from the Sony film Coco before Chanel. It shows the actress Audrey Tautou wearing a Boater Hat like the earliest Chanel creations.

“Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity.”  – Coco Chanel

During the 1920’s, Vogue Magazine lauded Coco Chanel as the creator of the simple, Little Black Dress

The Little Black Dress that Audrey Hepburn wore was designed by Hubert de Givenchy, but it is apparent that the Audrey Hepburn look is rooted in Coco Chanel.

Coco Chanel Also Turned the Simple Sailor Stripes into a Fashion Staple

In the following image, the Audrey Tautou is shown wearing the type of striped T-Shirt that is synonymous with Coco Chanel.

Coco Chanel Marinière et pantalon en 1928

“Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.”  – Coco Chanel

In 1858, the striped shirt or Marinière was designated as the official shirt of the French Navy.

In 1913, Chanel opened a shop and sold her interpretation of the  Marinière, as well as other sports and casual clothes and hats. Unlike fashion before that time, Coco’s clothes were made of jersey or underwear-type material.  Before then, French fashion had been a heavily corseted and overstated affair, but Chanel had the courage to break with fashion tradition and to forge a new path–one that forever changed the course of fashion history.

“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” –  Coco Chanel

The Chanel-like striped shirt, which is also called the Breton, is still a fashion staple, and a must-have part of the maritime look.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM – OCTOBER 18: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME) Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge leaves the Copper Box Arena in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park after attending a SportsAid Athlete Workshop on October 18, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

“Fashion fades, only style remains the same.”  – Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel Was Also the Mastermind Behind Redesigning Men’s Fashions and Interpreting Them for Women

“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.” – Coco Chanel

Although Coco Chanel was desperate to break from her bondage in poverty, she had the courage to move out of the safe zone, to think for herself, and to create what she felt compelled to create.

“Those who create are rare; those who cannot are numerous. Therefore, the latter are stronger.”  – Coco Chanel

How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone. –  Coco Chanel

Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. – Coco Chanel

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Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; it is up to you to merit the face you have at fifty.  – Coco Chanel


I am not young but I feel young. The day I feel old, I will go to bed and stay there. J’aime la vie! I feel that to live is a wonderful thing.” – Coco Chanel

©Jacki Kellum September 22, 2017