Are Coco Chanel’s Nazi Connections Important for Fashion Today?

Gabrielle Coco Chanel is a fashion icon that few people hold as high of regard. She is the creator of the iconic little black dress and No.5 perfume, which Marilyn Monroe wore to bed. Her influence can be heard across the board.

A new retrospective of her work is now open in Paris. “Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto” at the Palais Galleria was created with support from Chanel and invites visitors “to explore a universe of style and a style that are truly eternal.”

Gabrielle Chanel’s universe is not as relevant in 2020, but it does have one thing that feels out of place: Her work for the Nazis.

It is well-documented that she was in a relationship during WWII with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, and there are plenty of evidence to support this. Hal Vaughan’s book Coco Chanel’s Secret War, published in 2011, provides evidence that she was involved in Nazi missions. She had an agent number (F-7124), and was codenamed “Westminster” after her ex-love, the Duke of Westminster.

Although Chanel’s Nazi connections are well-known, the information is more pertinent in this year of Black Lives Matter. We have to examine the lenses through which we see history. The removal of statues of slave owners has prompted a critical discussion about who we celebrate and what the good and evil aspects of historical figures.

Although the exhibition does make mention of Chanel’s Nazi connections in the new exhibit, it doesn’t really focus on them. The Palais Galleria believes that it is important to shift attention back to Chanel’s work. “Gabrielle Chanel” is not about Gabrielle Chanel’s personal life. Fashion Manifesto exhibition. Numerous publications have already covered Gabrielle Chanel’s life, which is now well documented. However, this is not true for her work and her creations. The public is unaware of her contributions to fashion history,” a spokesperson stated.

Tansy Hoskins is the author of Stitched Up. The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion. She disagrees with the idea that we can seperate the woman and the design. “It’s obvious that Chanel’s far-right ideologies have influenced her designs. She was a champion of minimalism and austerity. It’s very European.” Chanel’s views about women’s equality are much more discussed. Chanel often mentions how her experiences led to more practical and comfortable clothing.

Chanel is more than a historical figure. It’s also a powerful and successful brand. Many of the stories about Chanel’s life have been inspired by the brand that is named after her. Chanel’s ads often depict the spirit and look of Gabrielle Chanel. The brand’s website also features a timeline with stories about her life. Director Anne Fontaine met Karl Lagerfeld multiple times to create the 2009 film Coco Before Chanel. Audrey Tautou was the ambassador for Chanel in the film. The film does not focus on her war years or her relationship with von Dincklage.

The brand dismissed Sleeping with the Enemy as speculation in 2011 and stated that “it will no doubt forever remain a mystery.” The brand is more open to accepting the perspective, but it seems to be more distant from the current brand. According to a spokesperson, Gabrielle Chanel was a bold pioneer. The House of Chanel continues and expands on her remarkable legacy. Her influence on many designers was significant and she continues to inspire. Her actions during World War II are still the subject of much discussion in biographies and publications. These actions are not representative of the values Chanel holds today. The House of Chanel has advanced far beyond the legacy of its founder since that point in history.

Many want brands to do more than just acknowledge their existence in the Black Lives Matter era. Eric Silverman, an Anthropologist and Author of A Culture History of Jewish Dress believes that more can be done. “I believe all companies that profited in the past – Holocaust and slave trade, land dispositions in South Africa, mistreatment of females, etc. – have a moral responsibility to give back to those communities that were hurt.” An apology and a full accounting are a good start.

Unusually, Chanel’s beliefs have been most affected by those who cover them up. Researchers who have studied Chanel’s Nazism believe that her antisemitism is linked to Pierre Wertheimer’s dislike. Wertheimer invested in Chanel’s perfume line, which was one of the most lucrative branches of the company, in return for a lion’s share. According to Aryan laws, Jewish people were not allowed to own businesses. This would have put the profits back into Chanel’s hands. This was not to be. Despite this ill will the Wertheimers supported Chanel again in 1954 when she relaunched her company. Alain Wertheimer and Gerard Wertheimer now co-own the brand worth $32 billion that their grandfather invested in.

Although the Wertheimers came out victorious in the end they were only one of many millions of Jews who were targeted by the Nazi regime. This does not include the millions of other Jews, including the many others from the LGBT, Romani and black communities. The discussion about Chanel’s past raises philosophical questions about what kind of society we want. Silverman says, “To not confront the past means to live and work today in a world that is dishonesty, historical illusion, and there is too much of it.”

Chanel isn’t the only fashion brand that has a dark history or present. But it stands out because it marries one the most adored fashion icons and one the most hateful political ideologies. These are not only uncomfortable topics that Chanel must confront, it is also a challenge for anyone working in fashion who wants to see the industry move forward in an open, honest, and fair manner. Hoskins explains that if we continue to venerate these people, we will exclude people who can make a better life. “We won’t be able get the diversity of people into the industry if this isn’t addressed.”

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