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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > December 2015 > Reel Story: Coco Before Chanel

Reel Story: Coco Before Chanel

This literal rags-to-riches story looks as beautiful and elegant as the fashion designer’s own style, as Mel Sherwood reveals…

Quietly, with just the sound of birdsong and the rolling of a cart’s wheels, two young sisters arrive at the Aubazine orphanage in central France in 1893. This is how Anne Fontaine’s 2009 biopic Coco Before Chanel, starring Audrey Tautou, begins. One of the girls is Gabrielle Chanel, destined to become Coco, perhaps the 20th century’s most celebrated fashion designer. But that is to come in her future. On this sombre day, the young Gabrielle is greeted by black-and-white-habited nuns, and ushered inside the abbey, a stone building of simple design and austere furnishings. A fitting location for the future fashion designer – who would become famous for her neutral colour palettes and simple, clean silhouettes – to grow up.

Audrey Tautou gives a wonderful performance as a headstrong and intelligent Gabrielle Chanel - later to become fashion icon, Coco

The orphanage may have been a key influence on Chanel’s style, but she was greatly ashamed of her time there. As an adult, Chanel would refer to the nuns who raised her as ‘aunts’, in just one of the many euphemisms and mistruths she used to disguise her less-than-glamorous upbringing. Despite their time in an orphanage, these two Chanel girls, along with their brothers and another sister (who may have also grown up with the nuns), were not orphans. Though their mother had died at just 32 – after a decade on the road with Chanel’s father, a travelling salesman, and six pregnancies – their father lived. Chanel, however, never saw him again.

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About History Revealed

The Roman occupation of Britain changed the course of our history – building cities, roads and great walls, pacifying tribes and creating a unified economy. But how and why did they come to invade, and why did their mission ultimately fail? PLUS The Black Death: The terror of medieval Europe Stalin: the brutal regime of Britain’s WWII ally Prohibition: when America was dying for a drink Coco Chanel: the ultimate rags to riches story The 10 wealthiest people ever The King and Mrs Simpson: Edward VIII’s abdication The Wright Brothers Boston Tea Party The Cold War Death on the Lusitania And much, much more!