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Coco Chanel: Fashion icon with controversial connections

September 16, 2023

A retrospective on the 20th-century fashion doyen in London not only looks at her iconic contributions to fashion but also her dubious Nazi relations.

Black and white picture of French designer Coco Chanel lying down on a couch with a fur coverlet over her.
Feminist designer or Nazi collaborator? Coco Chanel remains an enigmaImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

It is perhaps one of luxury fashion's most recognizable logos: a pair of interlocking Cs.

These initials of a French 20th-century fashion icon could very well stand for opposing adjectives to describe her: Coco Chanel — creative yet controversial.

"Creative" because she's been credited, among others, for freeing women of their corsets, restyling menswear as womenswear, making the little black dress très chic, elevating tweed and jersey to catwalk-worthy fabrics and for fashioning the coveted arm candy that is the Chanel 2.55 quilted handbag with the long chain shoulder strap. And then she was also behind the fragrance that American actress Marilyn Monroe famously said she wore to bed: Chanel No. 5

Black and white picture of American actress Marilyn Monroe holding a bottle of Chanel No.5 perfume in her hands.
It's been said that one bottle of Chael No. 5 is sold every five seconds round the globeImage: Ed Feingersh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

"Controversial" because of her alleged collaboration with Nazi Germany, as documented by journalist Hal Vaughan in his 2011 book, "Sleeping With The Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War." He states that the designer was not just romantically involved with a German intelligence officer called Hans Günther von Dincklage; she also shared his far-right ideologies.

These diverse facets of the redoubtable fashion trailblazer will be on display at the "Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto" exhibition, which opens on September 16 at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London. 

This first UK exhibition dedicated entirely to Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883-1971), the show charts the evolution of the French couturière, from the opening of her first millinery boutique in Paris in 1910 to the staging of her final collection, two weeks after her death in 1971.

"Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto" also explores how her signature style still resonates in the 21st century. 

A rags-to-riches tale

A woman of humble birth, Chanel learned to sew and embroider from the nuns who raised her after her mother's death. Her logo's interlocking Cs are said to be inspired by stained glass windows at the convent where she lived, and her favored palette of black and white and her use of pearls may very well be a throwback to the nuns' habits and rosaries.

Picture of a black handbag with a quilted design and gold chain strap and a lock featuring two interlocking letter Cs.
The iconic quilted handbag with the recognizable interlocking Cs Image: Matthias Toedt/ZB/dpa/picture alliance

Featuring over 180 looks, shown together for the first time, as well as jewelry, accessories, cosmetics and perfumes, the V&A exhibition looks at Chanel's innovative approaches to fashion design — be it in terms of silhouettes, fabrics or colors — that radically changed how women dressed.

Exhibition curator Oriole Cullen told The Guardian that the team had "scoured international collections for never seen before pieces, some over 100 years old."

Among the exhibits are vintage outfits that belonged to 1950s British top model Anne Gunning (later Lady Nutting), whom Chanel unsuccessfully tried to woo for her stage shows. Chanel outfits belonging to Hollywood stars Lauren Bacall and Marlene Dietrich will also be on show. 

Mannequin dressed with a belted blouse.
This 1916 belted blouse of fine-gauge silk jersey is one of the oldest surviving Chanel garmentsImage: Nicholas Alan Cope/CHANEL

Of 'prettiest uniforms' and Chanel's 'Ford'

Naturally, no Chanel retrospective would be complete without her signature tweed skirt suits, which owes its origins to her time in the UK, when she was seeing the Duke of Westminster. Having borrowed clothes made of Scottish tweed from his wardrobe for country walks and fishing excursions in Scotland, she later incorporated British tweed in designing her classic boxy skirt suits, that Vogue described in 1964 as "the world's prettiest uniform," of which 50 will be featured at this exhibition.

Similarly, iterations of her famous "little black dress" will also be featured. In 1926, when she published a picture of a calf-length, straight black dress, American Vogue christened it "Chanel's Ford." Likening it to the carmaker's famed Model T, the magazine underscored the LBD's simplicity and accessibility to women of all social classes.

Black and white picture of a woman wearing a black dress with a sequinned, fringed skirt.
Classy then, classy now: 'the little black dress' Image: Edward Steichen/Condé Nast/Shutterstock

Nazi collaborator or French resistance operative?

Even though the V&A exhibition focuses mainly on Coco Chanel's career in fashion and not on her private life, curator Oriole Cullen told The Guardian that they "couldn't do a show about Chanel and not address her wartime record." Thus exhibits in this regard will include transcripts of postwar interrogation of three Nazi officials, who all separately named her as a trusted source.

It is common knowledge that Chanel had a relationship with Nazi officer Hans Günther von Dincklage during World War II. Hal Vaughan's research, based on documents that had been recently declassified when he wrote his 2011 biography on the designer, provided further evidence that she was also involved in Nazi missions. She had an agent number (F-7124) and the code name "Westminster," after her former lover, the Duke of Westminster.

Interestingly, the V&A exhibition will also feature previously unseen documents that also indicate Chanel's involvement in the French resistance movement. 

The Guardian reports that the name "Gabrielle AKA Coco Chanel" is on a list of 400,000 people whose part in the resistance is backed up by official records. "We have verification from the French government, including a document from 1957, which confirms her active participation in the resistance," Cullen told the paper. 

"The new evidence doesn't exonerate her. It only makes the picture more complicated. All we can say is that she was involved with both sides,"  Cullen added.

Incidentally, a BBC documentary titled "Coco Chanel Unbuttoned," which airs a day before the start of the V&A exhibition also mentions this perplexing "dual role."

Black and white picture of a woman wearing a monochrome outfit watching another woman dressed in an evening gown.
1957 picture of Coco Chanel observing a model wearing her evening gownImage: United Archives/picture alliance

"People wish their favorite artists were 'good people' too, and while I understand that desire, I don't think people are ever really neatly 'good' or 'bad,'" filmmaker Hannah Berryman told The Observer. "Chanel was of her times, an opportunist and a survivor, which probably influenced her choices."

"Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto" will run from September 16, 2023 to February 25, 2024 at the V&A Museum, London.


Brenda Haas | Porträt
Brenda Haas Writer and editor for DW Culture