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Coco Chanel’s Little-Known Flirtation with Golden-Age Hollywood


In 1931, Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel was 47 years old and had been a household name in Europe and America since the age of 30. She had been raised in an orphanage after her mother died. As a young woman, she had worked as a shop assistant and a cabaret singer before becoming a designer of hats, setting her on a path to being the most famous of the Parisian couturiers. Employing hallmarks of early-20th-century modernism in her designs—she knew many of the godfathers of modernism, including Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Cocteau, even Picasso—Chanel reimagined haute couture. A line of costume jewelry and her famous perfume, Chanel No. 5, made up the Chanel brand, which became synonymous with high style, privilege, and good taste. Her signature initials—gold, interlocking C’s—continue to exert global influence today, well over 100 years after her birth. Last year, Chanel, valued at $7.2 billion, was No. 80 on Forbes’s list of the world’s most valuable brands. Today, a bottle of Chanel No. 5—the first synthetic perfume ever created—is sold somewhere in the world every 30 seconds.

In 1931, Chanel didn’t need Hollywood. Hollywood, however, needed Chanel. Or so thought movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, who ran United Artists. He believed that “women went to movies to see how other women formal dresses online,” according to A. Scott Berg in his 1989 biography, Goldwyn. Film designers, unlike couturiers, were really theatrical costumers, whose designs, it was widely felt, “lacked elegance and mimicked fashion without being so itself,” in the words of film scholar Kristen Welch. As movie audiences dwindled after the Wall Street crash of 1929, Goldwyn was looking for new ways to bring in moviegoers—especially women. In Chanel he saw his chance. With her designs, Goldwyn felt, Chanel would bring “class” to Hollywood.

Lillian Gish had rejected the clothes designed for her by Erté, whom Louis B. Mayer had brought to Hollywood. Greta Garbo had difficulties with MGM designer Gilbert Clark. But Goldwyn felt that Chanel would be irresistible, so he offered her a guaranteed $1 million to come to Hollywood twice a year, to “dress his stars, both onscreen and off . . . . Chanel was to put the actresses in styles ‘six months ahead’ of fashion, in order to offset the inevitable delay between filming and release,” according to Rhonda K. Garelick in her 2014 biography, Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History.

With offscreen clothes designed for stars such as Gloria Swanson and Norma Talmadge, the stars’ images would meld seamlessly with their screen glamour.

Goldwyn reportedly told French journalists, “I think that in engaging Mme. Chanel I have not only solved the difficult problem of how to keep clothes from being dated, but also there is a definite service rendered American women in being able to see in our pictures the newest Paris fashions—sometimes even before Paris sees them.”

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