What Are Some Highlights of Coco Chanel's Early Life?


Quick Answer

Coco Chanel was born under the name Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, grew up in an orphanage and tried to make a life as a cabaret singer before eventually becoming an enduring style icon. Chanel had a tendency to rewrite her history, so some of the facts of her early years are in doubt.

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Full Answer

Coco Chanel was born on Aug. 19, 1883, in Saumur, France. She later claimed to have been born 10 years later in Auvergne. Her father was a street peddler, and her mother was a shop girl. They were unmarried.

When Chanel was still a child, her mother died of bronchitis. The story diverges here as she either spent some time living with aunts or went straight to an orphanage in a convent. Either way, she learned the skill of sewing at the orphanage, both from the nuns and from relatives in the provincial capital of Moulins.

After turning 18, Chanel went to work for a tailor as a seamstress. At night, she sang in a cabaret frequented by cavalry officers. Her name came from her time as a cabaret singer, either from the French word "cocotte" or from popular songs she sang with the word "Coco" in them.

Coco Chanel became mistress to a rich man named Etienne Balsan, who gave her the money to start her first millinery in Paris. She eventually expanded her business and incorporated clothing, for which she became famous.

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