It’s hard to imagine the fashion world without the name ‘Chanel.’ Gabrielle Chanel, better known as Coco, started the emporium in 1910 in Paris. Coco Chanel revolutionized haute couture as few have done in fashion history. However, behind the iconic designer hides a woman with a life she tried so hard to hide. There, among its mysteries, are her two sisters, Julia-Berthe and Antoinette, who did not have such a pleasant life as the Coco.
Julia-Berthe, Gabrielle and Antoinette: the Chanel Sisters
Gabrielle Chanel was born in Saumur, France, on August 19, 1883. Daughter of Eugénie Jeanne Devolle and Albert Chanel, Chanel had two sisters (Julia-Berthe and Antoinette) and three brothers (Alphonse, Lucien, and Augustin). The latter sadly died as a baby in 1891.
At a very early age, the Chanel family was struck by tragedy when Eugénie died of tuberculosis in 1895. The little boys were put to work on farms when they were only 10 and 6 years old.
Albert, unable to support his family, abandoned the girls to their fate in an orphanage in Aubazine. Julia-Berthe was 13, Gabrielle 12, and Antoinette was only 8 years old. At the orphanage, the sisters learned to sew, embroider by hand, and iron, abilities that would change Gabrielle’s destiny.
It was a difficult stage that Coco took it upon herself to erase, even if it meant that, in the process, she would need to hide her sisters’ history to the world. In the words of Judithe Little, author of the book Chanel’s Sisters: “The past was terribly painful for her. As she did with her parents or her origins, the tragedy of her sisters affected her too much, so she erased it.”
Life Outside the Orphanage
Eventually the Chanel sisters left the orphanage and were sent to a religious boarding school in Moulins, where Gabrielle met her young aunt Adrienne, just two years her senior. Together they began singing at shows in the area.
In fact, some say that this is where her famous nickname Coco was born, as she only knew the songs “Ko-Ko-Ko-Ri-Ko” and “Qui qu’a vu Coco.” Although Gabrielle herself revealed, according to an Atlantic article, that her nickname came from the French word “cocotte,” which means casserole. After a while, the singing duo was joined by Gabrielle’s younger sister Antoinette and soon came to be known as “the three graces.”
The details of Antoinette’s life after this stage are unclear, thanks in part to Coco’s efforts to hide everything related to her past. However, Little claims that the younger sister was a key player in Coco’s early fashion career, supporting her from her beginnings in Paris in 1910.
The Alleged Suicides of Julia-Berthe and Antoinette
While Antoinette was able to accompany her sister Coco in her early years outside the orphanage, we cannot say the same for Julia-Berthe. The older sister’s life is unknown except that she was a single mother to André Palasse. Even the end of her life is shrouded in mystery. Officially she died of tuberculosis, but biographers like Lisa Chaney point to suicide: “The macabre story goes that she threw herself in the snow naked until she lost consciousness and froze to death.”
Antoinette’s life was also largely unknown. During her time in Paris, she met Oscar Fleming, a Canadian pilot she married in 1919. Together they flew to Canada, but according to Judithe Litlle, the Chanel sister’s previous lifestyle did not fit in with Oscar’s traditional family.
Sometime later, Antoinette left her husband in Canada and traveled to Buenos Aires, where she died in 1922. Chaney again points to suicide as the cause of death: “It was reported, for a long time, that she died in 1920, due to the Spanish flu, but when the certificate appeared, it was learned that she actually died in 1922, a victim of a drug overdose.”
The Past that Coco Wanted to Erase
Despite being present at the beginning of the brand, Coco Chanel never spoke again about her younger sister after her death. As with her parents, the couturier tried to reveal as little as possible about her past history.
Today, there is no precise information about what became of the sisters. And of the siblings, it is only known that they were able to meet again briefly in the 1920s. It is hard to understand why Gabrielle would go to such lengths to hide her past, but it is there, present, and years after her death it is worth learning about the people around the designer.