How Coco Chanel took inspiration from the British aristocrats and playboys she loved most

Coco Chanel
Coco Chanel

The forthcoming V&A exhibition ‘Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto’ is the first retrospective in the UK dedicated to the work of this legendary designer, and the venue seems particularly appropriate, for although Chanel’s name is still synonymous with Parisian chic, her life and style were also shaped by her long-standing affinity with Britain, and her relationships with two Englishmen in particular.

The new edition of my biography of Chanel is being published to coincide with the V&A exhibition, and some of the most intriguing elements of my research into Chanel’s life emerged from British archives, including those that related to her love affair with the 2nd Duke of Westminster, her close friendship with Winston Churchill, and her role as couturière to the British aristocracy and members of the Royal family.

The origins of Chanel’s anglophile associations date back to 1909, when she fell in love with Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, an entrepreneurial businessman and polo player who would provide the capital for her first millinery atelier in Paris. Success came swiftly, and in January 1910 Chanel opened new premises on Rue Cambon, where the brand still has its couture salon today. Two years later, she launched another shop in the Normandy coastal resort of Deauville, again with Capel’s support, and in 1915 she set up a similarly successful boutique in Biarritz.

Chanel with her lover Boy Capel – ‘In losing him, I lost everything’ – on the beach in Saint Jean de Luz in 1917.
Chanel with her lover Boy Capel – ‘In losing him, I lost everything’ – on the beach in Saint Jean de Luz in 1917 - Getty

By this point, Capel was serving as a captain in the British Army, while the First World War was raging across the battlefields on the Western Front in France and Belgium. For all the apparent contradictions between the enterprises of fashion and war, Chanel’s business thrived, perhaps because her simple jersey jackets, skirts and unadorned sailor blouses seemed to offer an appropriate way of dressing during such a sombre era.

Inspired in part by Capel’s sporting outfits, they were chic, but not showy; monochrome, in keeping with the mood of the times; clothes that could be worn to drive an ambulance or a military vehicle, as women joined the wartime workforce.

One such woman was Diana Wyndham, the daughter of Lord Ribblesdale and a young war widow whose husband was killed on the front in September 1914. Following his death, she had volunteered as an ambulance driver in France, where she met Boy Capel. Despite the fact that he was still involved with Chanel, Capel proposed to Diana, and the pair were married in August 1918 at her sister’s Scottish home, Beaufort Castle.

Chanel was devastated, although her affair with Capel soon resumed after his marriage, despite the birth of his first daughter in April the following year. An even more terrible blow was to follow, when Capel was killed in a car accident on 22 December 1919, driving from Paris to Cannes.

Chanel evening trouser suit (1937-38), once worn by Diana Vreeland, featured in the exhibition
Chanel evening trouser suit (1937-38), once worn by Diana Vreeland, featured in the exhibition - Victoria and Albert Museum/Nicholas Alan Cope

‘In losing Capel, I lost everything,’ Chanel subsequently told her friend, the author Paul Morand. But she did not lose the House of Chanel that Boy had helped her to establish; and despite his betrayals, he did not stop providing for her after his death. When his will was published, it included a bequest of £40,000 to Chanel, which was sufficient for her to invest further in her business, and to buy a villa on the outskirts of Paris, Bel Respiro – which had previously been the home of Boy and Diana.

This curious link between the two women who had loved Capel was further reflected in the fact that Diana became a Chanel couture client during her marriage to Boy, and remained a loyal customer long after his death. Diana remarried for the third and final time in 1923, to the 14th Earl of Westmorland; the same year, coincidentally, that Chanel met the Duke of Westminster, who happened to be the half-brother of Diana’s first husband.

Chanel and Westminster were introduced by a mutual friend in Monte Carlo, where the Duke was a frequent visitor aboard one of his two yachts. Known to his family as Bendor (or Bennie, to his friend Winston Churchill), he was the richest man in Britain, with an immense property portfolio that included most of Mayfair and Belgravia, vast estates in the Scottish Highlands, and an immense stately home, Eaton Hall, in Cheshire.

Over 6ft tall, heavy-set and weather-beaten from shooting, sailing and fishing, but still handsome at the age of 44, Bendor had a reputation as a playboy, having recently become estranged from his second wife. Perhaps this is why Chanel was initially hesitant when he embarked upon an ardent courtship of her; she was also still involved with another man, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, a Russian émigré in Paris after the Revolution.

Bendor continued to woo her with flowers from his hothouses at Eaton – sometimes delivering the bouquets himself, or hiding jewels within them – and on one occasion called on her at Rue Cambon together with the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII.

Soon afterwards, the Prince seems to have joined the pursuit, inviting himself to her home for cocktails, taking her out to dinner and to nightclubs. But by the spring of 1924, Chanel had made up her mind. ‘Out of my three chaps,’ she told a friend, ‘the Prince of Wales, Dmitri of Russia, and the Duke of Westminster, I chose the one who protected me the best.’

She also confided to the same friend, ‘I am sure it was Boy who sent Westminster to me,’ as if Englishmen still stuck together, even in the afterlife.

Chanel’s relationship with Bendor brought her into the heart of British society, although she was already dressing various fashionable young women, including Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who was first photographed wearing Chanel in 1922 (the year before her marriage to Prince Albert, Duke of York, the future George VI).

During the summer of 1925, Mademoiselle Chanel’s name appears in the fishing records of the Duke of Westminster’s Scottish estate, where she displayed considerable success as an angler. In the same period, she was also spending time in London, attending to her British clients (among them the Duchess of York). On 22 June 1925, the diarist Henry ‘Chips’ Channon noted her presence at the Embassy Club: ‘Westminster, just divorced, was there with Chanel, the French couturière-courtesan whom rumour says he will marry.’

Chanel with the Duke of Westminster at Chester Races in 1924
Chanel with the Duke of Westminster at Chester Races in 1924 - Getty

Winston Churchill was very much in favour of his friend’s liaison with Chanel, having spent many happy fishing holidays with them in the Highlands. In October 1927, he reported to his wife Clemmie that ‘Coco… fishes from morn till night & in 2 months has killed 50 salmon, She is vy [very] agreeable – really a gt [great] & strong being fit to rule a man or an Empire. Bennie vy well & I think extremely happy to be mated with an equal – her ability balancing his power. We are only 3 on the river & have all the plums.’

At Eaton Hall, Chanel took on the role of chatelaine with the same ease as she wore her silk-fringed evening gowns, designed so as not to crease when they were packed for travelling. She went out hunting and accompanied the Duke to the races; and after he bought another Scottish mansion, Rosehall, in 1926, Chanel decorated it to her own taste, introducing what was said to be the first bidet in the Highlands in her en-suite bathroom, with graceful French wallpaper on the bedroom walls and a restrained beige-painted drawing room.

‘This is a vy agreeable house,’ wrote Churchill to his wife, while on a fishing trip to Rosehall in May 1928. ‘The air is most exhilarating, keen and yet caressing… Coco got three fish yesterday.’

At the same time, just as she had done with Boy Capel in the past, Chanel began to incorporate elements of Bendor’s wardrobe into her own, adapting his soft tweed jackets and twill riding breeches for herself. Soon, these traditional British textiles were featured in her couture collections, alongside the little black dresses for which she had become famous.

Throughout the 1920s, photographs and drawings of Chanel outfits appeared with increasing frequency in British magazines, and it was reported that her influence had extended to Prince Albert’s sister, Princess Mary, and King Edward VII’s youngest daughter, Queen Maud of Norway.

Even Queen Mary, the arch-traditionalist wife of George V, was said in the press to have ‘expressed interest and pleasure’ in Chanel’s fabric designs, produced in collaboration with British textile manufacturers, and apparently chose one of these to be made into a dress.

The V&A exhibition will be displaying a sample of this particular fabric, made by the Carlisle firm Ferguson Bros Ltd, and it also includes an evocative film of a Chanel fashion show that was held in one of the Duke of Westminster’s London properties in Grosvenor Square in the spring of 1932.

The collection was showcased over two weeks, celebrating Chanel’s ongoing partnership with local textile mills, and was modelled by British society women. But despite her continuing affection for Bendor, and his country, Chanel had once again been supplanted by another younger Englishwoman: on this occasion Loelia Ponsonby, the daughter of a senior courtier to the King.

The Duke’s only son had died of appendicitis at the age of four, a tragedy that ended his first marriage. Chanel was 46 in 1929, and although she looked far younger, it was becoming clear that she would not bear him the son and heir that he desperately sought. Their affair was by no means over – Chanel came to stay with the Duke at Eaton Hall in mid-December 1929, for example, and was photographed there at his house party and shoot.

But Bendor had recently met Loelia at a London nightclub and proposed to her less than a month later; they were engaged just before Christmas and married in February 1930. The betrothal did not prevent his seasonal visit to Chanel on the Riviera. Loelia’s subsequent memoir describes how he set off to France the morning after their engagement, to spend Christmas in Monte Carlo: ‘I had a dreadful suspicion that a particularly elegant French lady would be meeting him there.’

Vogue August 15, 1931: Portrait of the Duchess of Westminster (formerly Loelia Ponsonby)
A portrait of the Duchess of Westminster (formerly Loelia Ponsonby) in 1931 - Cecil Beaton/Condé Nast/Shutterstock

The following month, Loelia was presented by the Duke to Chanel in Paris, as if by way of inspection: ‘At that time Mademoiselle Chanel was at the height of her fame, her quiet, neat, uncomplicated clothes being considered the epitome of all that was most chic. Small, dark and simian, Coco Chanel was the personification of her own fashions. She was wearing a dark blue suit and a white blouse with very light stockings... Described in this way she sounds as if she looked like a high-school girl, but actually the effect was one of extreme sophistication.’

Chanel sat regally upon a large armchair, recalled Loelia, dazzling in her jewels, many of which had been given to her by the Duke. ‘I perched, rather at a disadvantage, on a stool at her feet feeling that I was being looked over to see whether I was a suitable bride for her old admirer – and I very much doubted whether I, or my tweed suit, passed the test.’

In the event, the marriage was doomed from the start. Loelia suffered from seasickness throughout their honeymoon on the Duke’s yacht, and did not become pregnant. Two days after the wedding, Bendor went to visit Chanel again, this time alone, and said to her, ‘What a mess we’ve made of it.’

Chanel wept, but maintained a lifelong friendship with Bendor (just as she had done with Grand Duke Dmitri and her other lovers), and dressed his wife in impeccable couture. Thus one of the most spectacular dresses featured in the V&A exhibition belonged to Loelia, the Duchess of Westminster, and dates from 1932.

A 1932 evening dress designed by Chanel and worn by Loelia, the Duchess of Westminster, will be on display at the V&A
A 1932 evening dress designed by Chanel and worn by Loelia, the Duchess of Westminster, will be on display at the V&A - Victoria and Albert Museum

In the words of Oriole Cullen, the V&A curator, the blue sequinned silk gown ‘epitomises Chanel’s approach to eveningwear during the 1930s. It is a very modern garment, extremely lightweight with a pared-back silhouette making it easy to move in.’

Wearing the dress allowed Loelia to look every inch the elegant young aristocrat; but it is also a subtle reminder of the apocryphal pronouncement: ‘There have been many Duchesses of Westminster, but only one Coco Chanel.’ Bendor divorced Loelia, and married for a fourth time – although never had the heir he desperately hoped for – while Chanel remained fiercely independent, as the fabled iconoclast who came to represent the free-spirited modern woman.

Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, by Justine Picardie, is out now in hardback (Harper Collins, £35). 

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, 16 September 2023 - 25 February 2024.