by Elena Tran
You may love, or hate, or be totally indifferent about Mademoiselle Coco Chanel. However, you cannot deny that she had good taste. She was an opportunist and a shrewd business woman. She was a woman who understood the power of mystery and the importance of discretion. She reinvented her past to elevate herself to the highest ranks of society. It wasn't easy for a woman to succeed then, and it is just as true now. There are those who say that she wouldn't have succeeded without the help of the powerful men and women in her life. It may be so, but even her ability to make the best of her connections and talents was extraordinary.
Let’s go back to 1924. In the spring 1924, Coco Chanel had a new boyfriend, a society playboy Hugh Grosvenor, the second Duke of Westminster, and one of the richest men in England. They met at a Christmas party in Monte Carlo in 1923 and they started seeing each other.
Coco Chanel and the Duke of Westminster at the races in 1924.Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/books/review/sleeping-with-the-enemy-coco-chanels-secret-war-by-hal-vaughan-book-review.html
When the couple appeared together in April 1924, it created a bit of a stir. You see, the Duke was still married at the time, and appearing in public so openly with his mistress was frowned upon. Let's not judge them and look instead into the result of her connection with this powerful man and his influence on her new business idea.
It is widely accepted that Chanel discovered tweed fabric after she started dating the Duke. Chanel loved fishing, which was one of Duke’s favorite sports as well. She traveled to Scotland several times and stayed with the Duke and his friends. She got access to the highest social circles, which was good for her business. Tweed suits were a staple in Duke’s circles. Chanel was always unconventional, and she borrowed the laid-back style wholeheartedly. There are photos of her wearing over-sized heavy tweed jackets.
Coco Chanel with friend Vera Bate at LochmoreSource: https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/lifestyle/fashion-beauty/scottish-connections-are-believed-to-have-inspired-some-of-coco-1468335
Although we may never know exactly how Chanel jumped at the idea of making ladies suits from tweed fabric, I believe that Chanel was a good businesswoman and she saw an opportunity. It is important to mention that Chanel loved masculine clothes even before she met the Duke. All her biographers agree that she often borrowed clothes from her boyfriends because she liked that style, the comfort, and the freedom. We have many photos of informal Chanel wearing pants and jackets. If they were comfortable, she put them on.
Now imagine Coco Chanel on her fishing trips with the Duke. She wears warm tweed jackets that are so comfortable, nonrestrictive, and in her favorite colors of Scottish landscape. The fact that the aristocracy was wearing tweed, played a role, too. Chanel knew her customers well.
“Tweed … describes coarse-textured woolen spun fabrics from Scotland, Ireland and Yorkshire, although Scottish in origin.” Before Chanel adopted the fabric for her luxury designs, tweed was used mostly in menswear. The tweed outer wear was popular with farmers for day-to-day tasks, but also with aristocrats in their sporty pursuits, like hunting, fishing, and golf.
Tailleur Between 1927 and 1929 Brown and off-white speckled wool tweed Paris, Patrimoine de CHANEL Julien T. Hamon
Chanel started by ordering her simple tweed fabric from the mills in Scotland. The tweed fabric available at that time was thick, durable, tightly woven and stiff, perfect for menswear. This fabric might not have been so widely adopted by women had it not been for the next stroke of good luck for Chanel.
The Ranee of Pudakota wearing a Chanel suit, 1926
In 1928, Chanel was introduced to a company called Linton Tweed by one of her influential friends. She worked with the manufacturer over time to make the tweed fabric softer, and the yarns became lighter and thinner. Chanel biographers would like to say that she invented modern tweed. I don't want to take the spotlight off Chanel, but I believe that the new tweed fabric was a product of collaboration between the designer and the manufacturer. Linton Tweed should get proper recognition for their innovations.
Later, tweed was made in combination with different mixed fibers and materials such as velvet, lurex, ribbons, feathers, leather for interesting colors and textures. The variety of colors and patterns available is truly astounding.
Chanel was a visionary, no matter how you feel about her as a person. I believe that she helped transform the rough tweed fabric into a work of art. Tweed fabric we order now is lighter, softer, and more sophisticated than ever. Although our tweed story began in Scotland, Chanel wasn’t loyal when it came to her tweed fabrics. She moved tweed production to France after she returned to the world of fashion in the 1950s. Right now, the tweed fabric for Chanel is made exclusively in France. Maison Lesage does amazing things with their tweeds. You wouldn’t find fabric like that in your local fabric stores.
And what happened to Chanel’s brief affair with the Duke? A bit of a mystery, I am afraid. Some biographers say that the Duke proposed to Chanel, but she refused him because she was an independent woman and she didn’t want to get married. There is no evidence that there was a proposal at all. Chanel was notorious for reinventing her past and creating mystery about her personal life. And the Duke, being a real gentleman, never said anything publicly about his mistresses or past wives. After all, true nobility doesn't flash their dirty laundry in public.Their split seemed to be amicable by all accounts. Chanel was successful and independent, and she didn't burn bridges. The Duke was married four times. He and Gabrielle Chanel remained friends until his death in 1953.
De la Haye, A & Tobin, S. (1994). Chanel, The Couturiere at Work. The Overlook Press, New York.
Dykes, C. (2021) Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster (1879–1953), known as ‘Bend’Or’: A Reappraisal.