When I was 13, I watched a biography of Coco Chanel on TV, and I was immediately taken with her. She was an artist, an entrepreneur, and most importantly, a truly independent woman who did what she wanted. From that day on, whenever someone – a teacher, a friend a relative – asked me who my hero was, I’d smile and declare, “Of course, it’s Coco Chanel!”
If you are unfamiliar with her, Coco Chanel was born in France in 1883. Born into poverty to an unmarried mother (very taboo at the time), there was a great deal she had to overcome to grow up into the design legend she is remembered as today. Her young life was marked by tragedy, her mother dying of bronchitis when she was 31. Chanel herself was only 11 when this happened. She was now desperately poor and without many people to love her.
From her very humble beginnings, however, Chanel used her sewing skills to become a seamstress. Through hard work and tenacity, by 1918, Chanel had acquired an entire building and begun her career as the toast of France’s fashion scene. Soon her perfumes, hats and legendary women’s suits would be famous the world over.
As a teenage girl, I so admired how she was a successful businesswoman who built a fashion house that still stands as one of the most creative and important in the world to this day, decades after her death.
I also admired how Chanel never married. In an era where there was so much pressure on women to find and become legally bound to a man, Chanel was her own master, becoming more successful and renowned than her male counterparts in the male-dominated French fashion scene.
As a young teen, what I loved most about Chanel, however, was how she used her creativity to make women more comfortable. Indeed, she was the one who made it fashionable to go without corsets. Chanel literally gave women room to breathe! She liberated us from the idea that it was more important to have an unnaturally tiny waist than to feel good in our clothes.
Taking women out of their corsets may sound small. It’s not suffrage, it’s not the right to own property or have control over one’s reproductive future. And yet, imagine how hard it would be for us to fight for all the feminist causes we do if our fashion norms still dictated we wear undergarments that make breathing – let alone staging a public protest – that much more challenging.
As I got older, of course, I became disillusioned with Chanel, as often happens with our heroes. That first biography I saw about her on television did not mention her known hatred of Jews, which she was apparently indoctrinated into at convent schools, or the fact that she had an affair with a high-ranking Nazi named Hans Gunther Von Dincklage, who helped protect her during the war.
As an adult, I would no longer call Coco Chanel my hero. So much of her life was problematic, and I cannot ignore that. I cannot pretend Chanel is a role model for the type of feminist I want to be by glossing over her history of anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathy. As an adult, my feminism is intersectional, and saving some women from the corset is not enough to compensate for so much vile discrimination.
When I remember Chanel, I remember my world before it was so intersectional. Before I realized it was possible to do some progressive things for women while at the same time having despicable beliefs about other groups. When I loved Chanel, my fledgling feminism was an innocent one.
The good thing I have found about feminist heroes, however, is that you can always find more. As I got older, I found Angela Davis, Judith Butler, and all of the fabulous feminists I loved from my Gender Studies classes and feminist causes. As I grew up, I didn’t need to call Coco Chanel my hero anymore, but I am forever grateful for one thing – I’m glad not to be wearing a corset as I write these words.
Editor’s Note: This is the third post in a series of articles where contributors discuss their early feminist role models or figures who influenced their early feminism.