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The Fashion Celebrity Status Of Coco Chanel History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

A celebrity is someone that is effortlessly decipherable in any given society or culture. In most cases celebrities are usually outgoing, that is, they are sociable and self confident. They are the type of people that will always attract a great deal of media attention and will always make headlines in any such setting. Celebrity status may be achieved as a result of one’s profession, recurrent appearance in mass media or better still it may be accidental or through ill fame. Celebrity status may be either short term (what is commonly known as instant celebrity) or long term.

A fashion icon is someone that is widely and uncritically admired in relation to style and custom that is prevalent at a given time. They are usually people of style that endures the test of time. It is therefore inevitable that from the definition of a celebrity, fashion icons undoubtedly fall into this description.

The character and reputation of any given celebrity may either be built from his or her early life or it may as well be influenced by the celebrities’ entrance into fame. It understanding of the life of a celebrity from his or her childhood is therefore valuable before one can be justified to correctly judge his or her personality.

In the twentieth century celebrity might not have had much hard sell at it is now, but it is good to appreciate that at this time celebrity culture was boosted by the immense success and recognition of pop stars. Chances are high that the stardom of both Coco Chanel and Andy Warhol may have been significantly influenced by performing arts which they may have partaken at some point in their lives.

Chanel’s Background

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was born on 19th August 1883 in Sumur, France. She was a French fashion designer that was forerunner in many designs. In the twentieth century she distinguished herself as a significant personality in the fashion industry. Her fashions were inspired by menswear and she was known to go for expensive simplicity. She founded her own brand ‘Chanel’ whose fame has transcended time. She had so much contribution in fashion to the extent she made it to the Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century as the only individual in the fashion field.

Chanel’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1895, after which her father left the family. She had to be brought up in the orphanage of the Roman Catholic monastery of Aubazine and it is here that she learnt the vocation of seamstress. She spent her school holidays with relatives within the capital of the province, where she was taught how to sew with more embellishment than the nuns did. It was at eighteen that Chanel left the orphanage for Moulins town as a cabaret singer. She held performances in clubs in Vichy and Moulins and that is where the nickname “Coco” originated. It is said that the name originated from one of the songs she frequently sang. An article in The Atlantic claims she personally alluded that it was a “shortened version of cocotte, a French word that means “kept woman”.

Chanel was not successful as a singer but her encounter with Etienne Balsan, an affluent, young legatee of a French textile changed everything. It was soon common knowledge that she was Etienne’s mistress while she worked in a tailoring shop. He was profligate on her with jewellery and garb. At her leisure times she designed hats and this eventually become a passion for her. On the conception of the idea of design, she abandoned Balsan and took possession of his apartment that was in Paris.

Later on Captain Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel, Balsan’s friend, with whom Chanel had an affair, financed her first shops and a clothing style that he personally owned. His jersey blazers were an integral component in the idea of her creation of the Chanel look.

In 1910 Chanel was licensed as a hat maker and she took the opportunity to open a boutique, Chanel Modes at 21 rue Cambon, Paris. Her career thrived when Gabrielle Dorziat, a theatre actress modelled her hats in the play Bel Ami in 1912. She set up yet another boutique in Deauville in the year 1913, where she introduced casual clothes meant for leisure and sports.

Her career as a fashion designer began in 1915 at the launch of her next boutique, Chanel-Biarritz that mainly served moneyed Spanish customers that spent their holidays in Biarritz. By 1919 she had established her maison de couture since she had already been registered as a couturiere.

Chanel, however, did not appreciate that she started from humble beginnings. She therefore fabricated stories of how she was sent to stay with her two cold hearted aunts after her father left for America in search of greener pastures on the death of her mother when she was only two. She even went to the extent of falsifying her age by claiming she was born in 1893 instead of 1883.

Coco was introduced to Igor Stravinsky, a world famous composer by ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. She was known to have dated many prominent men including the Duke of Westminster yet she did not marry. Whenever approached concerning the issue of marriage she claimed that much as there had been several Duchesses of Westminster, there was only one Chanel.

Chanel was inspired in 1925 by Vera Bate Lombardi, née Sarah Gertrude Arkwright who was reportedly the illegitimate daughter of Marques of Cambridge who linked her to several royal families in Europe. Chanel brought up the English look, which borrowed heavily on Lombardi’s personal style. The extremely high social connections that Lombardi had such as her uncle the Duke of Westminster and her cousin the Duke of Windsor among others had an immense effect on Chanel’s celebrity status.

Warhol’s Background

Andy Warhol, on the other hand, was a painter, printmaker and filmmaker, a principal personality in pop art, a visual art movement. He was an American born on 6th August 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He started off as a commercial illustrator after which his fame grew as a painter, avant-garde filmmaker, author, record producer and was associated with assorted social classes such as distinguished intellectuals, Hollywood celebrities and bohemian street people as well as wealthy patrons. Many expositions, books, and documentary films have featured Warhol. A common phrase about fame in fifteen minutes was coined by him.

Andy’s early life was spent with his parents. In 1914, his father, who worked in a coal mine settled in the US. His mother followed suit in 1921 after the death of his grandparents. They resided at 55 Beelen Street and eventually at 3252 Dawson Street in Oakland near Pittsburgh. Andy and his siblings were brought up as Catholics. One of his nephews established himself as an outgoing children’s book illustrator.

While young, precisely in the third grade, Warhol developed chorea, a disease that affects the nervous system and causes involuntary movements of the extremities. The disease, which leads to blotchiness in skin pigmentation, is deemed to be a complication of scarlet fever. Most of his time as a child, Warhol was out of action and this caused students at school to develop an attitude against him. In addition, he was a hypochondriac in that he picked up a fear of doctors and hospitals. He eventually described this as an imperative stage in the growth of his personality, skills and preferences. This is particularly due to the fact that he would listen to radio and collect pictures of his favourite movie actors around his bed. His father passed on in an accident while he was still thirteen.

Warhol’s artistic talent began to show while he was still young. He went ahead to study commercial art at the School of Fine Arts at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania which is currently the Carnegie Mellon University. He started a career in magazine illustration and advertising in New York City in 1949. He grew famous in the 1950’s when he drew fanciful shoe advertisements in ink. He also ventured into designing of album covers and promotional materials with the advent of the vinyl record, Hi-Fi, and stereophonic recordings. These he did with Sid Maurer, yet another freelance artist.


It is clear from their lives that both Chanel and Warhol grew to their celebrity status from humble beginnings. This is characteristic of most celebrities. Both of them became orphans at their early stages of life but they rose against the barriers of social class to become fashion icons during their lifetimes. Both of them put very much commitment in what anyone would describe as their hobbies, and it is these that eventually made them grow famous.

Chanel’s father peddled small-wares for a living while her mother was from a peasant family. Her mother died while she was just 12 but that did not seal her fate for the future. Despite her father abandoning them at the moment when they needed him most, she was not discouraged but took the opportunity of what she had at her disposal to model her future. She had to use the skills she learnt at the orphanage in which she was brought up to develop ideas that were to be later instrumental in ushering her into the limelight. She began with a shop in which she sold mainly linens and wares before eventually trying out singing and dancing in clubs around her. Her celebrity life is clearly not equivalent to the life she lived as a child.

Warhol was faced with a similar upshot as that of Chanel. His father was a construction worker come miner who hailed from Czechoslovakia. While young he suffered from a condition that made him bedridden. This is enough to make anyone lose hope for living. He did not succumb at all. His father died when he was only thirteen and being the breadwinner of the family, this meant difficulty in his future life. He however braved on to study up to college where he graduated in the year 1949. At this time he would help his elder brother to huckster fruits and vegetables from a pickup truck. It was after college that he started applying his skill of commercial art which by then gave him very meagre earnings. He was to later gain fame when he ventured into shoe advertisement which can be considered as the foundation of his celebrity status.

Both of them engaged in what is perceived by society as social evil; to be precise, sexual immorality. They may have justified these as integral in their individual careers since in one way or another they actually affected their careers. This is common among celebrities. In their cases, however, they may have begun practising these habits before their celebrity status. Chanel for instance used this as an avenue to kick-start her career and also as a means of sustaining it. Chanel is said to have had affairs with her numerous patrons, most of who were filthy rich. In most cases these affairs were in exchange for her personal needs such as expensive jewellery, clothing and also contributions to her businesses. The fact that she did not get married may have been for the reason that marriage as a factor could limit the favours that she received from her numerous lovers. With time this became whenever confronted with the issue of marriage. She defended herself as being only one even though there may have been several Duchesses of Westminster. This may have meant that though her patrons may have had strings of other mistresses, she was exceptional in that only she knew what she was after, and it was clearly not love or marriage. She is also said to have been involved in activities that were lesbian in nature.

Warhol on the other side was a self confessed homosexual. This was evident in most of his artwork that depicted erotic content and drawings of male nudes. It was so to the extent that some of his first works were rejected by a fine arts gallery for being explicitly gay. Since homosexuality was evident in most of his work it is therefore no doubt that even his very first works were not exceptions. Despite being an icon to the outside world, this is an issue that might have barred anyone from looking up to him. Just like many celebrities of the past and even of the present, this was the weaker part of him.

Both Chanel and Warhol were brought up as Christians. Despite this, it was evident with time that they went against the doctrinal expectations of Christian living. The fact that after the death of Chanel’s mother she was brought up in an orphanage owned by a catholic church could imply that hers was a devoted Christian family. It is clear that she might not have liked the church environment that much. This is cemented by the fact that she even finds her female relatives’ teachings on sewing much better than those of the nuns back at the monastery. She may, in this context be considered to have developed a silent negative attitude towards the church environment. The arts of the all nuns may not have been poor after all, but just because of the attitude she could not appreciate them. This may also have reason for denial of having brought up in the orphanage. This idea of forming attitudes goes a long way into her career where she forms different attitudes towards different kinds of people based on their social class, gender etc. for instance, she develops a certain attitude about men that makes her not want to marry. She also assumes the other mistresses affiliated to her many patrons are not as wise and smart as she is, yet on the contrary they may as well have been the wiser.

For the case of Warhol, he together with his siblings was brought up as Byzantine Catholics. He did not have a negative attitude towards the church as such, yet as a celebrity he showed signs of being uncomfortable with the church idea altogether. His later works were a clear indication that he appreciated religion since they portrayed religious subjects and themes. These include Details of Renaissance Paintings (1984) and The last Supper (1986). The arts were evidently impacted by the eastern Christian iconographic tradition that was to be noted at the places he frequented for worship. Much as he attended mass almost on a daily basis, he never took communion or made confession. This could be suggestive that he was afraid of being recognized as a renowned celebrity if it is anything to go by. He is also noted to have once said he was self-conscious of being made out in a Roman Catholic Church though behaving as an Orthodox. According to his brother he was a religious man only that he did not want it known by people since he regarded religion as being a private concern.

Equally Chanel and Warhol had enormously advanced ideas about originals and copies. They were not as much affected by their counterfeited products in circulation. They in fact found it fun confusing the “real thing” with the “fake”, the “original with the “knock-off”. They both comprehended the value of publicity as a healthy practice in entrepreneurship. In fact Chanel acquiescently encouraged imitations of her styles by people on condition that they did not fake it.

Both Chanel and Warhol changed their names at later stages of their lives. It is the nature of most celebrities to adopt new names during their celebrity status. The names are usually meant to be appealing to their fans and hence their creativity in choosing the stage name for their fans determined the number of fans that they could possibly attract.


Warhol was sociable while Chanel was not. Chanel mostly interacted with well to do people. This could be the main reason as to why her inspiration ended up being Vera Bate Lombardi, née Sarah Gertrude Arkwright who had links to several royal families. Chances are that she saw these links necessary as opposed to the commoners if her celebrity status was to grow in any way. It is also possible that Coco rode in the fame of these great people and in turn gained her own fame. This clearly illustrates that for those she interacted with; it was openly out of her own selfish desires and not in any way for the mutual benefit of all the concerned parties. She elevated herself to a position higher than others and therefore could not see what the others could offer.

Warhol on the other side is said to have associated with diverse social classes ranging from common street people to the royal classes. He can thus be considered to have been humble. He appreciated the fact that he is a celebrity because of all the people who surrounded him. He knew that being a celebrity does not convert him from a human being; rather it transformed him into a human being though with some extra responsibilities attached to it. He seems to have understood the fact that much as his status in society had risen, he still needed others in order to live a complete life.

As celebrities, the marriage backgrounds of both Chanel and Warhol are not clear but this was for their own apparent reasons. For Warhol it may have been as a result of his bisexual nature while for Chanel she made it clear that she could not marry any of her patrons, particularly for the most promising one, the Duke of Westminster she says, there have been several Duchesses of Westminster but there could be only one Chanel.

Coco Chanel was not very appreciative of her early life. This may be attributed to pride as a celebrity. She even goes ahead to give the impression that she is younger than she really is. It was like she wanted a greater part of her life to reflect her achievement. Another reason for her denouncing of her past may have been that the memories were to bitter to remember and that she did not want to think of them even for once.

As for Warhol, his past did not affect him to such great extents though the motive behind him dropping the ‘a’ from his name, which was actually Warhola cannot be explained. It is however said that he dropped the letter just to make the name easier to pronounce. Not much is said about his views on his past meaning he could have just accepted things as they were and got to appreciate the fact that he was famous because of what started as humble beginnings.

As for any given celebrity, inspiration is very important as it is what will always keep him or her going. Inspiration is yet another thing that greatly contrasts the life of Warhol from that of Chanel. Chanel is inspired by other people that have been successful in their professions, particularly Vera Bate Lombardi, née Sarah Gertrude Arkwright while Warhol mainly drew his inspiration from everyday objects as cookie jars, toys, jewellery, watches, and antiques.

As is with most luminaries, Warhol’s actions tended to be equivocal. Some of the things he did could not be easily explained. For instance, one cannot clearly figure out why he could go to church and still feel uncomfortable in the same place.

For the case of Chanel, though she may have seemed so, studying her entire life proves that if anything she was unequivocal, so to say. Edith Piaf, a lady who sang in nightclubs for the Nazis tried to justify their actions by claiming that they did not know whether they were doing good or bad. She blamed a “subtle poison that corrupted even their best actions”, but for Chanel’s case we understand that she was very comfortable in the company of the enemy. After the invasion in Paris she fled only to return a year later in demand for her room at the Ritz that had been commandeered by Germans. She ends up living with von Dinclage who was a German officer (and most probably a spy), thirteen years younger than her.

Chanel grew her profession through her interactions with those who inspired her. Lombardi’s personal design was one of her main considerations when she established the English look. She counted it great value being introduced to the many aristocratic families by Lombardi. It is these connections that she probably took advantage of and drew as much fame as she could. Through the same connections, she managed to escape various arrests especially those involving the Nazi, with whom she was believed to associate during the world war.

For Warhol, he was a collector that was passionate throughout his life. The things he collected included Native American artefacts, early arcade equipment taking in carousel horses and many other artists’ work. Given the availability of such, it then follows that his inspiration was always with him. It could also be the reason as to why his fame did not die until in his old age. It is also worth noting that since one cannot precisely predict what object he can come across in a day, Warhol encountered several objects that enhanced his creativity the more. He therefore possibly had so many ideas in his mind in that he might not have explored some of the possible designs that he may have wanted to try his hand on.

While for Warhol it is clear that genuine effort played a major role in the success of his career, Coco Chanel can be considered as having been a scheming opportunist. She grasped the slightest opportunity that came her way through her numerous wealthy patrons who financed the early stages of her businesses. She mastered a game that saw her influence them to part with sumptuous fortunes that she used for her own edification. When she was twenty-two she moved in with Etienne, a gentlemen horse breeder and riding enthusiast as his mistress. Throughout her stay in the castle, though not very comfortable as a mistress, her mind was just fixed on making herself a career as a milliner. Later on it is the Englishman Arthur Capel, a young, enterprising, athletic and important businessman that assisted her to open her first milliner shop in Paris in 1910 and eventually a boutique in Deauville, France.

After the declaration of the Second World War, Chanel closed her business as she considered it an unsuitable time for fashion. Despite all this, her fame did not go down since she was able to re-establish herself soon after the world war, just as fast as she had done before. It was at this time that she was rumoured to have been involved in a steaming affair with a high ranking German officer. This official may have been the one taking care of her needs considering that she did not earn during that time. The Committee of Public morals ordered her arrest, which was not to be as she was released and immediately left for Switzerland where she spent a considerable part of her life.

Warhol did not abandon his career during the war since it was not affected to a great extent. Due to his daily inspiration and flexibility of his arts he may not have seen the need to do so. Another thing that made him outstanding was the facts that he had far much too many occupations and hence at no time would he find himself idle or rather bring him to being so. If he were to leave his career, as a man he could not as easily find someone to accommodate him and provide his needs as was the case with Chanel.

After the Second World War, Chanel’s celebrity status faded while Warhol’s celebrity status continued to grow. Chanel’s involvement with Gunther von Dincklage made people to be mad at her for being a supporter of the Nazi. This resulted into the dwindling of her celebrity status in the later years apart from the support of a few British and Americans that became dedicated customers to her. It is therefore proper to say that while Andy Warhol finished on a high note, Coco’s was a low one that depreciated to the very end.

Warhol’s celebrity status kept on strongly till his death. This was because he had far much less controversy to make people develop attitudes against him. He remained dedicated to his work and perhaps the reason why he was not involved in such controversies was because he was too busy engrossed in work to find time for things that could derail his success in his career. His humility may have also contributed a great deal in the lasting support that he continually received from his fans even in his later days.


From the discussion above it is clear that the celebrities were in a class of their own during the twentieth century. It is also worth noting that like many other celebrities they had their own achievements and short fallings. It is however notable that they revolutionized the fashion industry during their lifetime.

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