Trigger Warning: This post contains discussion of Nazism, concentration camps, murder, and antisemitism.
Today is International Women’s Day, which means that my inbox and my Instagram feed have been full of the requisite hashtags and photos of slogan tees that cost hundreds of times more than the workers who made them were paid. Amongst a sea of already questionable content, one photo caught my eye about a week ago – someone on Instagram posting a photo of a set of books on ‘inspiring women’ that she’d bought for her infant daughter. Among the others – Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace – was a book on Coco Chanel. Coco Chanel as an ‘inspirational woman’.
“Why wouldn’t you include Chanel? She was a groundbreaking designer with her own fashion house, who changed women’s style for the next century!” I can almost hear people crying angrily, and that’s absolutely true. Chanel was incredibly influential, her own personal style and that of her house being imitated across the world. Why wouldn’t you want to hold her up as an example of an inspiring woman? Well, because she was also a Nazi collaborator.
“None of this is hidden or secret information, so it is surprising to see Chanel paraded so often, particularly in children’s books, as an example of an ‘inspirational woman’.”
Widely acknowledged to have held antisemitic views, Coco Chanel moved into the Ritz in Paris – a location favoured by senior members of the Gestapo – once the occupation began, and had an affair with high-ranking official Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage (you can read about him here and make up your own mind about his particular strain of Nazism). She took advantage of Nazi Aryanization laws to try and regain part of the Chanel company from its Jewish owners, the Wertheimer family. For a long time, it was known and muttered about that Chanel had collaborated and befriended officials stationed in Paris; after the Liberation in 1944, she left France for Switzerland in order to escape any repercussions she might face from Allied authorities.
In 2014, the French government declassified documents outing her as Abwehr Agent F-7124, and detailing her involvement in Operation Modelhut, a Nazi plot that built on Chanel’s existing relationships with high-ranking officials including Winston Churchill. She was even given the code name ‘Westminster’, because of her romantic entanglement with noted aristocratic antisemite Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster.
Given all of this, none of which is hidden or secret information, it is surprising to see Chanel paraded so often, particularly in children’s books, as an example of an ‘inspirational woman’. One particularly ignorant moment this week that incensed me was Bloomsbury Publishing posting this image on their Instagram stories:
The text reads: “If you’d rather be a fashion designer, you’re more like Coco Chanel, who completely changed the way women dressed in the early 1900s. She was the first to design pyjamas and trousers for women! If you’d rather be an undercover agent you’re more like Noor Inayat Khan, the first female wireless operator to be sent to France in WW2, who evaded capture for 5 months (usually agents lasted 6 weeks!)”.
The reason this made me so angry only becomes clear when you know a bit about both women included in the image. Noor Inayat Khan worked for the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War, operating in Occupied France as a wireless operator. Having grown up in France as the daughter of a notable Muslim family, Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1940 after the family fled to England.
From there, she joined the SOE and became the first woman to be sent to France as a wireless operator. After five months, she was betrayed and captured, shackled and treated as a “Nacht und Nabel” prisoner, to be disappeared without trace. On the 13th September 1944, Khan was executed at Dachau concentration camp, along with three other agents (Yolande Beekman, Madeleine Damerment and Eliane Plewman). Including Khan, executed as part of the Nazi death machine, in an image playing her off against an Abwehr agent and collaborator like Chanel is insensitive at best and wildly offensive at worst.
“We have reached a point where the commodification of female empowerment is so total that people can just see these women as a quote on a poster.”
When Bloomsbury Publishing put together the image that they shared on their Instagram, they probably weren’t thinking about any of this. They’re doing it to sell books, specifically a book on “fantastically great women who changed the world”. We have reached a point where the commodification of female empowerment and the idea of the “inspirational woman in history” is so total that people can just see these women as a quote on a poster, as cartoons in children’s books, as pictures on t-shirts. Any critical examination is glossed over in favour of the quick and easy empowering soundbite.
This is not to say that we should only search out perfect women to be our role models, because we will never find them. But we should be talking about, and learning about, these women, and not blindly accepting that “inspirational” tag that is so often applied to someone with a high-profile. Our standards for our role models, our inspirations, should be high. Not unattainably high, without room to stumble and learn, but high enough that they don’t include Nazi collaborators just because we failed to do our research.