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August 19th 1883: Chanel born

On this day in 1883, the French fashion designer Coco Chanel was born in Saumur. Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, after the death of her mother she was sent to an orphanage and raised by nuns. As a young woman, Chanel frequently sang in cafes, during which time she acquired the name Coco. Having learned to sew at the orphanage, Chanel opened a hat shop in Paris in 1910, with the financial backing of her wealthy lover. Chanel began making clothes after she made a dress out of an old jersey on a cold day, and people expressed interest in her clothes. By the 1920s, Chanel’s business had expanded, allowing her to launch her first perfume - Chanel No. 5. However, a deal struck with businessmen who helped produce and market the perfume meant Chanel herself only received 10 percent of the profits. Also in the 1920s, she introduced the iconic Chanel suit and the little black dress, which were revolutionary and liberating in their emphasis on comfort over restrictive clothing such as corsets which had defined women’s fashion for decades. Chanel had a tumultuous and well-publicised love life, dating the duke of Westminster and, during the Nazi occupation of Paris, becoming involved with a German military officer. The scandal of her involvement with Nazis, coupled with the company’s financial difficulties after the Depression, led Chanel to retreat from the public eye until the 1950s. Coco Chanel lived long enough to see her career revived and her life be adapted into a Broadway musical starring Katharine Hepburn. Since her death in 1971 aged 87, the company she founded continues to be one of the most iconic names in fashion.