Uncovering Coco Chanel’s Hidden History: The Chanel Sisters by Judithe Little
Throughout her life Coco Chanel lied about her upbringing. Judithe Little, author of The Chanel Sisters (Graydon House, 2020), had always imagined Coco as “a solitary figure wreathed in strands of pearls,” but as she researched the fashion icon’s life, she quickly found there was much to learn— starting with the fact that Coco, the embodiment Parisian chic, was in fact born in a pauper’s hospital in the French provinces, the illegitimate daughter of a lovesick laundress and a traveling hawker of women’s underthings. When Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was a child, the death of her mother prompted her father to abandon his children. Three daughters were taken to an orphanage in the convent of Aubazine, where they remained until adulthood.
This was a second key discovery. Far from being a solitary figure, Coco Chanel had two sisters. “Julia-Berthe, the oldest sister,” explains Little, “seeks out physical love. She has no grand dreams to break out of poverty like the other two and is more willing to accept her lowly place in the world. Ninette, the youngest, wants stability and acceptance. In those days, coming up in the world meant marrying well, and she naively dreams of the kind of respectable marriage that means society will have to acknowledge her (in a way her father never did).
“Coco is more complicated. Like the others, she longs for the adoration she never received from her father, but she’s also driven by an almost primal need for financial independence. She learned from watching her mother’s demise that relying on someone else could literally kill you. Unfortunately, back then, women didn’t have the array of possibilities they have today. Women like Coco who hoped to have financial success had just two main ways to go about it: a career on the stage and/or becoming the mistress of a wealthy man. Coco, more pragmatic than Ninette, is willing to go beyond the boundaries of polite society and ultimately tries both.”
For The Chanel Sisters, Little choose Ninette as the primary storyteller— the younger sister who was there through their early challenges, and who, as a business partner, played a previously unsung role in the founding of the Chanel Empire. She is “the one person who knew exactly what Coco had to hide… who probably knew Coco better than Coco knew herself.” Through this sister’s eyes, Little brings to vivid life the influence of Coco’s upbringing on her famous aesthetic and style. “If you look closely, you can see clues to her convent upbringing everywhere,” Little says. “In fact, she imposed a sort of covert “convent chic” style upon the world. She favored black and white as a color scheme, nubby, rough fabrics, and the idea of clothing as a “uniform.” Her chain link belts are very similar to the rosary belts the nuns wore. Her style was elegant but also always modest. Much of her jewelry mimicked celestial patterns in the mosaic walkways at the convent orphanage. Even her logo, the famous interlocking Cs, can be seen in the stained glass windows of the convent sanctuary.
“I think she realized, consciously or not, that the nuns saved her and Ninette from hunger, disease, early death, and all that comes with the grim lot of extreme poverty. If there was no Aubazine, there would be no Coco Chanel. The nuns aimed to save the girls from the fate of their mother. Coco and her sisters went from a chaotic, desperate existence to a place where everything was structured. They were fed regularly, given warm clothes, taught the importance of cleanliness and order, and, importantly, taught how to sew. They were given the foundation of their work ethic and spent years observing what was in essence a “business” run completely by women, something they would later emulate.
Although the early part of the novel focuses on their teenage years in Aubazine, this is only the launching pad for The Chanel Sisters. Their colorful story spans from 1897 to 1921, from Biarritz to Paris, from Vichy to Buenos Aires, and tells of hard work, love affairs and bold ambition.
One section of the novel deals with the Great Flood of Paris in 1910, and is particularly vivid, perhaps because Little was able to use her real-life experience in her writing. “I was writing this scene around the time Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, which is where I live,” she explains. “That helped a lot with tactile research—the smells, the sights, the sounds of a flood and post-flood clean up. I was really struck by how similarly people in 1910 Paris and 2017 Houston reacted. In both cases, the community came together in amazing ways to help those who were displaced with shelter, food, and clothing. Good Samaritans were out every day in the floodwaters searching for those who needed rescue. As the French say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Early 20th-century Paris was also full of artists who remain famous over one hundred years later and Little clearly enjoyed bringing some of them to life on the pages of The Chanel Sisters. “Amedeo Modigliani and Guillaume Apollinaire were both immigrants who came to Paris because of the thriving artistic community there. They both died young and were more famous after death than in life. I wanted to pay my respects to them, so to speak, by including them. As for Picasso, when I read he used to carry a pistol and fire it into the air if there were to many people around him, I knew I had to include him as well. He was on the cusp between poor and rich, unknown and famous. He also was an important part of Coco’s life after the novel ends so I thought it would be fun to include him as a nod to that, especially as Coco herself became a part of the artistic community with her avant-garde ideas and costume designs.”
It is worth noting that The Chanel Sisters ends 50 years before Coco Chanel’s death in 1971. Little’s focus is firmly on their story as sisters and the establishment of Coco’s career, starting with untangling the “long trail of fibs” Chanel told about her past. It’s here that historical fiction can take the writer and reader where a non-fiction biographer cannot. As Little explains, giving a hint of the character of the woman she has written about, “the records of her time at the convent orphanage have been lost. Some say she had a hand in their disappearance, which I don’t doubt.”
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is the author of three historical novels, most recently The Girl Puzzle – a story of Nellie Bly (Crooked Cat Books, 2019).