Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History

Khalid Elhassan - April 11, 2022

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Coco Chanel. Chanel

4. How This Fashion Icon Got Her Name

Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (1883 – 1971) dominated Paris’ haute couture scene for six decades as its most prominent fashion designer. She came up with elegant casual designs that killed off uncomfortable nineteenth styles such as petticoats and corsets. Her innovations include the “little black dress“, costume jewelry, the Chanel suit, and quilted purses. The most famous item associated with her name, however, is the first perfume she launched, Chanel No. 5. When Time magazine published its list of 100 most influential people of the twentieth century, Coco Chanel was the only fashion designer to make the cut.

Gabrielle claimed that Coco was a nickname given her by her father. However, that is probably one of many untruths she made up about her family background. She reportedly got the name in her years as a cabaret singer, when she often performed a then-popular song called Who Has Seen Coco? Other accounts have it that it was a play on cocotte, the French term for a mistress. Yet another version has it that she was “called Coco because she threw the most fabulous cocaine parties in Paris“.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Coco Chanel and Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster. Classic Chicago Magazine

3. The Ugly Side of a Fashion Icon

However she acquired her iconic name, Gabriel Bonheur Chanel revolutionized the fashion business as Coco Chanel, and inspired millions. Less known about her is she was a rabid anti-Semite, an admirer of Hitler, and a Nazi collaborator who worked as a spy for the Germans in WWII. Coco Chanel had long been a reactionary and anti-Semite and got on well with others who disliked Jews. In 1923, she began a ten-year affair with Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, one of the world’s richest men at the time, and a rabid anti-Semite.

In the 1930s, Coco Chanel began a relationship with an illustrator named Paul Iribe, and financed his monthly journal, a reactionary anti-republican and anti-Semitic rag. She often stated that she believed that the Jews were a threat to Europe. As such, it is no surprise that Chanel got on well with the Nazis and collaborated with them when they conquered France in 1940. In the years of occupation, Chanel lived in Paris’ Hotel Ritz, where many high-ranking German military and Nazi officials dwelt.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Pierre Wertheimer. Bibliotheque Natioanle de France

2. How Coco Chanel Tried to Profit From the Holocaust

As her native France groaned under Nazi occupation, Coco Chanel became the mistress of Baron Gunther von Dincklage, a diplomat and German military intelligence operative. Before the war, the majority owner of Parfums Chanel, the company that marketed Chanel No. 5, was a Jewish businessman named Pierre Wertheimer. The Nazis routinely confiscated Jewish property and gave it to Aryans. Chanel petitioned the Nazis that since she was Aryan, they ought to seize Wertheimer’s share of Parfums Chanel and hand it over to her.

Unbeknownst to her, Wertheimer had guessed that the Nazis would confiscate Jewish properties. So before they got around to it, he transferred legal ownership of his business entities to a Christian French industrialist. That industrialist had more integrity than Chanel, and returned the businesses to Wertheimer when France was liberated. After the war, French intelligence described the fashion icon as a Hitler fan and “vicious anti-Semite“. Coco Chanel was more than that: as seen below, she was a collaborator and traitor who had directly worked for the Nazi occupiers.

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Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Walter Schellenberg. Bundesarchiv Bild

1. A Celebrated Fashion Icon Who Had Collaborated With and Spied for the Nazis

When Paris was liberated in 1944, Chanel fled to Switzerland to avoid criminal charges for collaboration with the Germans as a spy. She lived there with her German lover, Baron Dincklage, before she returned to France in the 1950s to get back in the fashion business. Ironically, her comeback was financed by Pierre Wertheimer, the Jewish entrepreneur she had tried to screw out of the Parfums Chanel business during the war. Whatever he thought about Chanel as a person, Wertheimer was the majority owner of a lucrative enterprise and brand that bore her name. As such, he had a financial stake in the preservation of the famous fashion icon’s image.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Coco Chanel. In Style

Chanel’s comeback was a success. The public by and large remained ignorant of what kind of person she really was until long after her death in 1971, at age 87. Decades later, declassified documents confirmed that she had worked for both the Abwehr, German military intelligence, and the dreaded Sicherheitsdienst, or SD, the intelligence arm of the SS and Nazi Party. Her SD boss was SS General Walter Schellenberg, who was sentenced by the Nuremberg Tribunal to six years for war crimes. After his release in 1951, Chanel supported Schellenberg and his family financially and paid for his funeral when he died a year later.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

BBC – Hugo Boss Apology For Nazi Past as Book is Published

BBC – The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Status Pineapple

British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Sep. 1987) – Shame and Glory: A Sociology of Hair

Burr, Chandler – The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession (2004)

Cherry, Paul – The Biker Trials: Bringing Down the Hells Angels (2005)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Hitler Youth

Encyclopedia.Com – Fashion During the French Revolution

History – How the Hitler Youth Turned a Generation of Kids Into Nazis

History Collection – The Most Famous Male Style Icons

History Learning Site – The Edelweiss Pirates

Holocaust Research Project – The Hitler Youth

Independent, The, May 2nd, 2012 – Fritz Theilen: Member of the Edelweiss Pirates, the Children Who Resisted Hitler

Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 30, 1995 – ‘The Enemy of Our Enemy’: A View of the Edelweiss Piraten from the British and American Archives

History Collection – Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background

Kaloni – 10 Facts About Men’s Long Hair in History

Marsden, William, and Sher, Julian – Angels of Death: Inside the Bikers’ Empire of Crime (2010)

Mazzeo, Tilar J. – The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume (2010)

National Motorcycle Museum – 1942 Harley Davidson WLA, The Liberator

New York Times, August 15th, 1997 – Hugo Boss Acknowledges Link to Nazi Regime

Paris Review, April 25th, 2018 – The Strange History of the “King-Pine”

Porter, Monica – Children Against Hitler: The Young Resistance Heroes of the Second World War (2020)

Racked – How Pink Became a Color for Girls

Schama, Simon – Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1990)

Time Magazine, August 3rd, 2009 – A Brief History of the Hells Angels

Vaughan, Hal – Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War (2012)

Wikipedia – 1775-95 in Western Fashion

Wikipedia – Edelweiss Pirates

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