A Good Impression
Gabrielle Bonheur Chasnel was born in the late 1800’s to an unmarried mother in a charity hospital in France. The second child of the couple who would go on to have five children, there was less than a year separating her from her older sister. Eventually, her parents did marry but her mother would die when she was twelve years old.
Gabrielle’s last name had been entered into the official registry incorrectly. Her father had not been p[resent at her birth and her birth was too ill to notice. After the mother’s death, her father sent the two sons to work as farm laborers and the three daughters to a convent orphanage run by the Congregation of the sacred Heart of Mary. Life at the convent orphanage was stark, strict, and highly disciplined. Gabrielle stayed there until age eighteen. She had learned how to sew at the convent and found employment as a seamstress although she would in the evening sing at a local cabaret. Either because of a popular song or as a nickname for the French word “cocotte”, Gabrielle became known as “Coco”.
The next phase of her life is regrettable by many standards but very typical for some women. Coco used her body in order to maintain a lifestyle and became the mistress of a French ex-cavalry officer. The life she lived with the former officer was lavish but apparently not enough because Coco began an affair with a close friend of his. During her time with the French ex-officer, Coco had begun designing and making hats as a hobby. During the affair with his best friend, she opened a millinery shop, financed by said friend. The shop bore her name, her correct name – Chanel Modes.
Coco Chanel opened her first dress shop with casual designs made from fabrics used primarily for men’s leisure wear – jersey and tricot. She paid her younger sister and an aunt to walk around town modeling her clothes. The end of World War I saw Coco Chanel achieve great success. Her fashions offered women a liberated sense of fashion. Later they would become the epitome of class and high culture.
Coco Chanel lived life according to her terms and, I freely admit, some of those terms were not such as I would find comfortable or moral. And that would not have bothered Coco Chanel at all. “In order to be irreplaceable, one must be different.” Coco Chanel never minded being a bit different. “A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.” She was definitely that… and more. A contradiction of sorts (She despised what she called the “vulgarity” of Hollywood and yet, her couture styles were worn by all Hollywood actresses.) I include her because she was a survivor and invented a new style of fashion that survives today. Chanel No. 5 is the world’s most successful perfume and has been for decades. “a girl should be two things: who and what she wants…. The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.” Coco Chanel lived life on her own terms and I highly respect that. She created an empire that is still thriving today, all because the nuns taught her how to sew, something they felt every little girl should learn.
I think Coco Chanel would have liked my next female inventor and entrepreneur. They call her the FlyLady – yes, all one word. Now her marketing says that the “Fly” stands for “finally loving yourself”. In truth, it began as a nickname because she liked fly fishing. Marla Cilley grew up in North Carolina and in the late 1990’s she was appointed to fill a spot on her local Board of Supervisors panel. The other four on the panel were men and, as Marla describes it, “My biggest fear when I took office was that those men would find out my dirty little secret: that I couldn’t keep house.”
What began as a way to combat that fear and learn how to clean house became a self-help support group for women all over the world and two books. Marla encourages women to let go of their perception that they need to be perfect and offers tips on how to clean and still have time to live. She now has an online store that sells products that go along with her premise that clutter never helps anyone and a clean house is possible with fifteen minutes spent in cleaning each day. One of mantras is “good enough is good enough”.
Both of these two women used basic traditionally female chores to create a livelihood. More importantly, the lived and defined who they were. Of all the inventions in the world, the invention of self is the greatest.