Did Coco Chanel Really Tell Us to Stay Classy and Fabulous?
Tatum Dooley investigates.
Image by Ben Park.
When asked what she wore to bed, Marilyn Monroe famously replied, “I only wear Chanel No. 5.”
The quote originates from a retelling by Monroe to Life Magazine in April 1952. The question wasn’t posed by Life; instead Monroe offered it up as a anecdote: “Once this fellow says, 'Marilyn, what do you wear to bed?' So I said I only wear Chanel No. 5.’"
A bastardized version often tidily conflates Monroe as both speakers: “What do I wear in bed? Why, Chanel No. 5, of course.”
Monroe is the subject of the second advertisement in a multi-part campaign, titled “Inside Chanel,” levied by the brand. The ad, at just over two minutes, makes Monroe a posthumous face of the venerable perfume. “We may never know when she said the phrase for the first time,” the video states about Monroe’s famous reference to the perfume, going on to cite all the times they have proof it happened: April 7th, 1952, in Life Magazine. October 1953, at a photoshoot for Modern Screen. April 1970, Marie Claire.
"°5, because it's the truth… and yet, I don't want to say nude. But it's the truth!"
But…it’s the truth lingers on the screen.
Truth has a funny way of getting distorted over time. Like a multi-generational game of broken telephone, quotes get twisted. They’re prone to inaccuracy in lieu of pull-quotes that roll off the tongue, or are shifted to better align with a given cause or image that we want to project onto the speaker. This phenomenon isn’t unique to Chanel or Monroe. Famous quotes such as, “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” “Life is a journey, not a destination,” are all possibly misattributed, explains an essay published on Quartz.
“Always believe that something wonderful is about to happen.” “I don't care what you think of me, I don't think of you at all.” “Don’t be like the rest of them darling.” “Keep your heels, head and standards high.” “If you’re sad, add more lipstick and attack.” These quotes, attributed to Chanel and found via an easy Google Image search, simulates the popular ice-breaker game “two truths and a lie.” What quotes did Chanel really say? What are the frauds? The dupes are only slightly off-base, making it difficult to decode the lies from the truth.
Chanel’s words often take the form of inspirational-quote-adjacent quips printed as epigraphs, on posters, mugs, and t-shirts. “A girl should be two things, classy and fabulous. –Coco Chanel” haunts my Google searches for Chanel quotes. One item prints the saying in garishly pink cursive on a plastic mason jar that has an attached handle and straw, like an adult version of a sippy cup. A cursed image. Most of the objects printed with Chanel’s quotes are decidedly un-Chanel (pink wasn’t even a Chanel color! An Inside Chanel video explains that those are: white, black, beige, gold, and red) and aren’t classy or even remotely fabulous.
But more significantly, the quotes themselves seem as unlike Chanel as the objects printed with the aphorisms. It seems out of character that the same difficult woman who frolicked with avant-garde elite, such as Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, and Tristan Tzara, (and Nazis) and built an empire from scratch would have said such a simplistic and prescriptive statement.
I email Rhonda Garelick, a cultural critic, professor, and author of Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History, to ask if she’d come across the source of the quotes “A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous," and, "Beauty begins the moment you decide to be yourself." Two quotes that read, to me, as possible frauds.
“As for those quotations, I have never seen them in any of my research, although I have read them attributed to her many times,” writes Garelick. “People attribute so many aphorisms to Chanel because they want to turn her into an oracle of more than style, they want her to be the guru of everything,” she continues. The immersive lifestyle brand introduced by the likes of Chanel, which then trickled down to celebrities, has set a precedent for the current trend of Instagram lifestyle bloggers: a paired down version of an aspirational life, minus the production of a tangible product.
“I think this is because she created an aesthetic that seemed almost universally appealing—and impressed her vision so widely,” said Garelick when asked about the popularity of the misattributed quotes. “She had a genius for intuiting what people craved and this continued long after her death. People sense that quality and now assume her to be a sage. That wasn’t quite who she was though.”
Fashion historian and author of Vogue On: Coco Chanel, Bronyn Cosgrave, explained to me over the phone that Chanel did say a lot of the quotes attributed to her—she was a known chatterbox (and liar…). But regarding the classy and fabulous quote, “That to me doesn’t sound like Chanel, but there were phrases that she did say. I think what happened with Chanel, just like Audrey Hepburn, is that she’s mythologized,” said Cosgrave. “Chanel was a pretty tricky character; there were a lot of scandals. But the brand has very much kept her spirit alive, and with [that] the quotes continue. Some of them are likely embellishments or sloppily translated,” she noted.
Karen Karbo, the author of Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons From The World's Most Elegant Woman, posits a different theory regarding Chanel’s aphorisms. “It's thought that most of her best lines were polished and in some cases ghost-written by the French poet Pierre Reverdy, an under-appreciated poet of the time with whom Chanel had an intense affair and enduring friendship,” Karbo writes over email. “She supported his poetry (often financially), and he would help her with her ‘Chanelisms.’ He polished her thoughts about her profession, which she shared with him in her (awkwardly) written letters, and created others about life, love, and style out of whole cloth (so to speak).”
In Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History, Garelick recounts that Chanel met Reverdy in 1919, introduced to each other by Misia Sert. Reverdy was Chanel’s only lifetime friend and confidant. “Some of Chanel’s writings were published in various women’s or fashion magazines. Their wry, bemused tone reveals the unmistakable stamp of Reverdy’s influence,” Garelick writes. Phrases penned by Chanel that closely resemble Reverdy’s writing began showing up in fashion magazines in the 1930s. Some of which, Garelick writes, include: Lie if you must, but never in detail, or to yourself. True generosity is to accept ingratitude. Elegance is not the opposite of poverty, It is the opposite of vulgarity—and negligence.
Be classy and fabulous! Divorced from the attribution to Chanel, the statement loses all meaning. It’s something an overzealous aunt might say to you as way of advice that you would certainly roll your eyes at and ignore. Did Chanel say it? Or Chanel the brand? The two are near impossible to separate, so it makes no difference. In her book, Garelick writes that both men and women “know who she is…or rather what it is, since part of what is being recognized is an identity that transcends fashion and even the person herself.” Later, Garelick writes, “Chanel wills herself (sometimes even posthumously) to be reproduced by and through others. She truly embodies the spirit of mimetic contagion.” For that reason, the importance of where, when, or even if, Chanel said the quotes attributed to her fades (like fashion, as opposed to style, which is eternal, according to Coco Chanel, or maybe not!).
Chanel herself worked to be untraceable— purposefully hiding her origins and, despite being a chatterbox, elusive about her personal life, never saying anything too revealing. It’s no wonder that her elusiveness extends to what she said. The guarded nature and fabrications of the founder results in the mystique of Chanel that people find compelling and magnetizing. Everyone loves a secret, and Chanel is shrouded in them. Even if the secret is simply an ambiguousness of what really happened and was said.
A question that haunts me: if Chanel didn’t say “A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous,” than who did? I should be able to trace the saying back to where it was first printed. Patient Zero. And yet, the saying has proliferated to a degree that makes this search impossible. Do I think Chanel said it? No. Do I think it’s good advice? Also, no. But I realize that these judgements don’t matter. People want to project an image onto Chanel, and as long as that image is in line with the brands, reality and fabrication become indistinguishable from each other.
You can buy knock-offs of the famous Chanel quilted bag all over the world; it very well might be that the quotes attributed to Chanel are also shams. But if you can’t tell the difference, does it really matter? What we think is real tells us more about the brand, and ourselves, than well-documented genuine quotes. In this way, maybe fakes are more important: they tell us what we want to believe.