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Coco Chanel in Vichy

It can be quite tough to imagine Coco Chanel anywhere other than glittery Paris and the coasts of Deauville where she opened her first couture house. But Chanel rose from a simple background and spent her early years in towns like Moulins and Vichy in central France trying to make it in the singing business.

Where is Vichy and what is it known for?

Vichy is synonymous with thermal waters of volcanic origins that cure several ailments. Located in central France in the Auvergne Region, Vichy gained popularity when Napoleon III reimagined Vichy as “Little Paris” and turned it into a thriving town of spa and leisure.

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Vichy France The Palais des Congrès - Opera

Read my full article on Vichy: Vichy France: Queen of Spas and more

Coco Chanel in Moulins and Vichy

In the early 1900s, Chanel left her orphanage to work at the Institution Notre Dame in Moulins where she picked up new sewing skills but also honed her singing voice. In fact, she loved singing so much that she started performing as a pauseuse (someone who sings between acts) at one of the local brasseries, Le Grand Café.

Le Grande Cafe in Moulin FranceInside le Grande Cafe in Moulin France

Thanks to her most popular song, “Qui Qu’a Vu Coco dans l’Trocadéro?” (Who saw Coco in Trocadero), she was nicknamed Coco, a name that would stick with her for years to come.

Read my more detailed article on Coco in Moulins

Why did Coco Chanel go to Vichy?

Chanel quickly became popular at the cafe in Moulins and wanted to try her luck in a big city. In 1905, Coco moved to Vichy with dreams of excelling in her singing. In a competitive environment, Coco tried her best to thrive but remained unsuccessful due to her thin voice. In order to keep sustaining herself, she took up a job at one of the thermal spas in Vichy. 

Vichy France The hall of Sources

In the Belle Epoque era, thermal spas were at the peak of their popularity. Clients went not only in search of relaxation and cure but also to ‘loosen their corset’ and seek hedonistic pleasure. The spas were also a wonderful space for young women from the working classes to get an income and rise in social ranks.

Vichy France The Celestine spring

Chanel worked as a donneuse d’eau– a water girl who would pour prescribed beverages into the glasses of the spa clientele. The uniform for the water girls was quite distinctive, made up of a striped linen dress and a trim white bonnet. It is believed that Chanel was later inspired by this uniform and created her designs based on ‘short’ and ‘white’.

Eventually, Chanel returned to Moulins to go back to her sewing and singing in brasseries. While returning without any success might seem like taking two steps back, it is in Moulins that Chanel would meet Étienne Balsan and be whisked away to his chateau. This is where she began designing hats in her spare time and in due course, met the love of her life, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel which eventually led her to Paris.

How about you? Are you familiar with Coco Chanel’s early history? Are you familiar with Vichy? Do tell!

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9 Comments

  1. This is so lovely to see. I don’t know a whole lot about Coco Chanel though. Loving these beautiful photos though.