We are all shaped by our places and circumstances, particularly those of our formative years. Caroline Young, in Living with Coco Chanel (White Lion Publishing, Sept. 2019), provides fascinating insight into the life and locations of fashion designer and businesswoman Gabrielle (“Coco”) Chanel, and how they gave rise to her career and designs.
From Chanel’s teenage years spent in an orphanage at the abbey of Aubazine, which forged her penchant for elegant austerity, to the summers she spent in the Scottish Highlands with the Duke of Westminster in the late 1920s that spurred her tweed-heavy collections, Young explores—supported by drawings, archival images, and contemporary photographs—how Chanel’s groundbreaking designs were inspired and influenced by her surroundings. She details how the inspiration for the linked double Cs of Chanel’s logo may have arisen from the abbey’s leaded-glass windows; and how Chanel’s 1926 debut of her “little black dress,” instantly rendering black the most fashionable color, harkens back to her uniform at the convent; and how the colors of the glimmering Mediterranean in front of Chanel’s villa on the French Riviera (its architecture deliberately echoing that of the abbey), and of the flowers in her gardens there, worked their way into her sequined evening gowns of the 1930s.
Chanel often omitted when recounting her biographical details that she and her two sisters were abandoned to a convent orphanage at the abbey of Aubazine in their childhood, following the death of their mother; it was Chanel’s home between the ages of 12 and 18. Young persuasively posits that Chanel’s years there were by far the most significant influence on her designs. There, whitewashed corridor walls contrasted with the black-painted doors; the nuns wore black-and-white habits; the girls’ uniforms comprised black skirts with white blouses. “The convent at Aubazine offers a glimpse into the creative mind of Chanel. It was from her memories here that she created many of her signature pieces, including her black, white, and beige colour scheme,” the author conjectures. Chanel herself is quoted as having told a biographer, “Years have gone by, and it is only now that I realize that the austerity of dark shades, the respect for colors borrowed from nature, the almost monastic cut of my summer alpaca wear and of my winter tweed suits, all that puritanism that elegant ladies would go crazy for, came from [the abbey].”
Indeed, Chanel’s entire life and career could be viewed as both a reflection of and an emancipation from the poverty and restrictions she endured at Aubazine. She began her career in an era when women were becoming more independent—working, playing sports, even driving cars—and her nonrestrictive designs liberated women for these pursuits; while setting trends both groundbreaking and enduring, she ensured her own independence as well as that of the wearers of her clothes. As Coco Chanel found success and fame, she drew upon the memories of her past to forge fashion’s future.