Villainous or vindicated? An interview with a French icon

HANNAH DUKE - Villainous or vindicated - Coco Chanel - My French Life - Ma Vie Française -

Coco Chanel is a woman of mystery. A long-lasting icon of French style and design, she has been depicted as a trailblazer, a villain, and everything in between.

In a previously unpublished interview, Chanel speaks with journalist turned World War II soldier and spy, Malcolm Muggeridge. The September 1944 interview addresses an issue that has long been speculated over: the nature of Chanel’s involvement with the Nazis in Vichy France.

A strong French personality

In this interview we have, for perhaps the first time, a true sense of Coco Chanel’s personality.

Hannah Duke, 29/08/12

She addresses each accusation placed on her with quick wit, and measured words. Her manner seems frank and unforgiving.

Her first words to Muggeridge are biting, immediately informing him that he is not the one in charge: “I believe you have come to liberate us. How very solicitous of you.”

She is not afraid to protect or defend herself, nor is she afraid to speak her mind. She gives her opinions without pretext, presenting views that could be considered controversial.

“It is odd how my feelings have evolved,” she says of the FFI (French Forces of the Interior), and their investigations into her Nazi involvement.

“At first, their conduct incensed me. Now, I feel almost sorry for those ruffians. One should refrain from contempt for the baser specimens of humanity, for whom liberation amounts to shaving the heads of women who have slept with Germans.”

From the ‘French perspective’

Hannah Duke 29/08/12 This interview didn’t so much serve to clear Chanel’s murky past. What it did present me with was the idea that we are often quick to condemn without truly comprehending.

One thing I have learnt through discussions with French natives on the issues in their country is that we cannot ever truly understand as outsiders looking in.

In the same way, while we can form opinions, we can never truly understand what World War II was for all those in Vichy France. Thus we can never really comprehend what World War II was for Coco Chanel.

Views on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in Vichy France


In her interview with Muggeridge, she purports to side with neither the Allies nor their opponents. “A liberation culminating in the shaving of women’s heads” is no liberation at all for her.

She summarises her stance best in one sentence: “Nobody has ever told Coco Chanel what to think.” Nor do I believe they ever will.

Should Chanel be condemned, or have certain complexities been overlooked?

Image credits:
1. Coco Chanel, via Pinterest
2. Malcolm Muggeridge, on Chanel’s War: The Unpublished Interview
3. Coco Chanel, on Chanel’s War: The Unpublished Interview
4. Coco Chanel, by joanneteh_32(loving Laduree), on Flickr

About the Contributor

Hannah Duke

“I’m a Melbourne-based journalist, editor, photographer, and blogger dreaming of la vie européenne. I love all things French except for the pigeons: film, food, literature, fashion, and I indulge in this passion as often as possible! Find me on Twitter, or Google+.”

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  1. Emmanuelle Tremolet Sep 11, 2012 at 3:39 PM - Reply

    Merci Hannah pour cet article très intéressant. La période de Vichy est une période difficile de l’histoire de France. Il y a eu les résistants, les collaborationnistes, ceux qui n’ont pas vu, pas voulu voir, ceux qui ont essayé de vivre le plus normalement possible ou ceux qui se sont protégés sous ce régime… Bref, c’est d’une grande complexité.

  2. Sarah Taylor Sep 11, 2012 at 5:43 PM - Reply

    Thanks for this, Hannah – it’s such an interesting article. I’d love to read the interview – can it be found online somewhere?

  3. Elisabeth Donato Sep 11, 2012 at 10:54 PM - Reply

    Sarah – The interview is here:
    Thanks for this article, Hannah. The interview was definitely very interesting!

  4. Hannah Duke Sep 12, 2012 at 8:58 AM - Reply

    Merci Emmanuelle, Sarah et Elisabeth! And thanks Elisabeth for providing the link. It was hidden at the end of the article also 😉

    It is indeed a fascinating interview – I was so interested to actually hear (or, read) Chanel’s ‘voice’ so to speak. Usually we hear only snippets, or actresses speaking for her etc. Well worth a read!

  5. Celine Mangiardi Sep 12, 2012 at 11:50 PM - Reply

    I’m so glad to read an article about Coco Chanel where the word ‘fashion’ is not used! I admire the courage of this women.
    I recommend the movie ‘Coco avant Chanel’ with Audrey Tautou. It’s a very good movie and it allow us to get her personality before she decided to design clothes.
    Thanks Hannah!

  6. Charles Trégouët Sep 13, 2012 at 11:34 AM - Reply

    Behind her indisputable talent in fashion, Coco Chanel is a woman who can be seen as a courageous person fighting agaisnt the Vichy Regime, or as a normal woman of that time, afraid by the World War II and maybe tempted by being involved in the Regime sometimes… Before being fashionable, Coco Chanel was a woman living in a very complicated world, as Emmanuelle said just above.

    That is why I liked your article Hannah :). You make us aware of the other side of a this famous woman. So fascinating!

    Well done 😉

  7. Hannah Duke Sep 13, 2012 at 11:46 AM - Reply

    Merci Céline et Charles!
    I agree – Chanel is so much more than just a fashion label, and a designer.

    And Céline – I absolutely adore that film. 🙂

  8. Sarah Taylor Sep 13, 2012 at 10:41 PM - Reply

    Thank you Elisabeth!

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