Coco Chanel is most often associated with black – black suits, the little black dress, her signature 2.55 bag is most often bought in black. But did you know that Chanel herself had a big passion for white? She not only included it into her collections but also wore white a lot herself.
Furthermore, she understood the power of a white dress and also played with the meaning of white when she created seductive dresses in a shade which stands for purity and innocence. Needless to say, she was also very well aware about the spiritual meaning. This article explores why white was so important for Coco Chanel and why it also is an important link to her past.
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The Power of White
Gabrielle Chanel was never the bride. She had many long-term romantic relationships – her first one Étienne Balsan, Arthur Capel who she called the love of her life, the Duke of Westminster, the illustrator and designer Paul Iribe and Hans Günther von Dincklage – but she married none of them. Nevertheless, she understood the mystique of a white dress.
Coco Chanel was often seen wearing white while attending balls in Paris and Monte Carlo.
She already knew about the power of white long before white satin became a trend in Paris after the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression in the late 1920s. Chanel herself called this trend later “candid innocence and white satin”.
“I have said that black had everything. White too. They have an absolute beauty. It is perfect harmony. Dress women in white or black at a ball: they are the only ones you see.”Coco Chanel
Gabrielle Chanel herself was often seen wearing white – she wore white pyjamas which she accessorized with jeweled bracelets at the Lido in Venice where she was spotted with French couturier Lucien Lelong in 1931. At her villa La Pausa in Southern France, she played tennis in a white outfit, shoes and hat and she was seen on a yacht in a crips white dress and jacket despite really bad weather. When she attended balls in Paris or Monte Carlo, she often wore a white satin dress with strings of pearl necklaces and also her clients loved white gowns, especially for the June balls in 1930. It felt as if especially that fashion season still tried to defy the grim economic future.
Chanel often wore white herself.
A Ball, A Duke and A White Gown
There is also an anecdote of Chanel and a white evening dress for the ball hosted by the Duke of Westminster in 1928. With this ball, he celebrated his youngest daughter Mary’s 18th birthday. Mary had invited Coco Chanel – who had been in a long-term affair with the Duke and Chanel hosted a dinner party before the ball which was attended by the Duke himself, his first wife and her second husband and Mary’s older sister and husband. When it came to the time to leave for the ball, Chanel asked the others to leave without her and explained that she wanted to change out of her white dress.
In the end, Chanel never attended the ball, she claimed that she was unwell. When the Duke came to see her, she used talcum powder to make her look pale and said, “You see, in the first place I don’t like doing things that bore me. And in the second you wouldn’t really have liked it either.” There had already been a lot of talk before the ball – would the Duke attend with his former wife and his mistress? But naturally, there was also talk when Chanel did not show up. But the Duke obviously found her amusing. Furthermore, it was a clear move by Chanel: she as the mistress did not want to attend the coming-out ball of her lover’s daughter with his former wife present wearing a bridal-white gown when everyone is gossiping already.
Chanel used white very often for her designs. She is said to have loved the purity white stands for. Some experts, such as Justine Picardie, assume that white reminded her of the wimples and collars of the nuns at Aubazine – the convent where she spent her childhood after her mother’s death and being abandoned by her father. Those very closes to her, such as Claude Delay or her niece Gabrielle Labrunie also said that her bedsheets always had to be made from plain white cotton.
Chanel in a white ensemble with her signature jewellery.
Playing with the Meaning of White
While white stands for purity and innocence, Chanel used it for evening dresses which were meant to look very seductive, yet ethereal at the same time. Chanel loved the contrast of bronzed skin and white and actually was one of the earliest to popularize tanned skin which she learned to enjoy during her early holidays on the Riviera. This was at a time when tanning in the sun was unthinkable – European women covered up to stay fair. Tanned skin was associated with manual labour; the upper class ladies had to be fair.
White lace dress, 1928.
Chanel knew about the importance of precision when working with white and famously said, “It mustn’t look like whipped cream”. In 1933, she launched an all-white collection for spring. She was very well aware of the spiritual meaning of white – her friend’s funeral, Raymoned Radiguet, in 1923 is proof of that: she organized a white coffin on a white hearse which was pulled by white horses. All the flowers at the church were white. This was also a reference to European royalty and French queens in particular: for them, white was the colour of deepest mourning, not black. In 1929, her close friend Serge Dhiagilev was terminally ill and Chanel and her friend Misia Sert came to see him. On their visit, he whispered: “I love you in white. Promise me you will always wear white.” When he passed away, Chanel not only paid his debts but also organized his funeral where she and Misia wore white dresses to honour his wish.
Chanel and her friend Misia Sert wearing white by the beach.
Chanel rarely designed wedding gowns. and she refused to end her fashion shows with a wedding gown – which is still custom in many houses. She created a few wedding gowns for clients in the 1930s and the ones for her sister Antoinette and aunt Adrienne: Antoinette had worked with her from the very beginning (she was the first name of the list of employ records) and she wore white for her wedding. However, Antoinette left with 17 pieces of luggage after her wedding and left her husband after a few months running away to Argentina where she died of alcohol poisoning shortly after Chanel’s lover Arthur Capel had died. Chanel never talked about her sister’s death. She also never talked about her aunt Adrienne’s wedding who married her lover, the Baron de Nexon after 20 years – his family never agreed to the marriage and Chanel was a witness.
Chanel rarely designed bridal gowns – in the 1930s she created some for clients and her family.
A Special White Dress from Chanel’s Past
As mentioned before, Chanel associated white with the nuns at the orphanage at Aubazine. But there is also an anecdote from her past around a special white dress. As with anything related to Chanel’s past (she frequently covered up certain parts of her own story or invented new ones), we will never know if the story was true: Chanel said that her father sent her a white dress for her First Communion which she initially cherished. However, later on, she resented it because she thought it was tainted as her father’s “tart” [sic!] had chosen it.
We will never know if or what parts of this story are true. Firstly, because it may be also likely that he did not even send her any dress. Even though Chanel frequently claimed that her father got in touch with her after bringing her to Aubazine, it may also be likely that he never got in touch again. And even if he did send a dress, we do not know who really chose it. But let’s say for Chanel, this dress – whether it was really bought by the father or not – had some significance and people close to her said it served as a major source of inspiration for Chanel. And maybe it may one of the reasons why Chanel was so passionate about white.
Chanel with a client wearing her signature suit in white.
 Picardie 2011, p. 191.
 Picardie 2011, p. 192.
 Picardie 2011, p. 192-195.
 Picardie 2011, p. 194.
 Picardie 2011, p. 192-195.
 Picardie 2011, p. 192-197.
 Picardie, 2011, p. 197.
 Picardie 2011, p. 201.
 Picardie 2011, p. 197-200.
 Picardie 2011, p. 197-198.
 Picardie 2011, p. 200.
 Picardie 2011, p. 197-200.
Information provided at the exhibition “Gabrielle Chanel – Fashion Manifesto” at the V&A, London 2023.
Lisa Chaney, Chanel – An Intimate Life, Audiobook via Audible, 2012.
Paris Musée, Gabrielle Chanel – Fashion Manifesto, exhibition catalogue, reprinted version, Paris 2021.
Justine Picardie, Chanel – The Legend and the Life, London 2011.
V&A, Gabrielle Chanel – Fashion Manifesto, exhibition catalogue, London 2023.
Hal Vaughan, Coco Chanel – Der schwarze Engel: Ein Leben als Nazi-Agentin, 2nd edition (in German), Hamburg 2013.
Picture Source Title Image
Picture taken at “Gabrielle Chanel – Fashion Manifesto” at the V&A in London. Picture taken by Liz Steiger
This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above.