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The Enduring Life of a Camellia

By Guan Tan

CreditsChanel Fine Jewellery, Bouton de Camélia Collection. Moving illustration by Felicia Yap.

"Chanel…, a provincial 13-year-old [was] on a trip to the theatre in Paris with her aunts. She sobbed her way through the entire performance of La Dame aux camélias…and her grief was so noisy that the rest of the audience complained. Nevertheless, she was dressed for the part that she had assigned herself: ‘I was in black. It looked nice, with my white collar. In the provinces, you wear your mourning until it falls off you in pieces! People told my aunts I ought to have another dress. “But she’s an orphan,” they said.’"

Penned by Alexandre Dumas and published in 1848, La Dame aux camélias or The Lady of the Camellias traces the tragic life of courtesan Marguerite Gautier. Her pet name, and thus the title, came about for she wore a white camellia in her hair when available for her lovers to make love to, and red when she menstruated. Gautier’s eventual death in the play roused Chanel’s grief for her mother, Jeanne: 

"Her mother figures only as a shadowy invalid in Gabrielle’s memories; though there are a few splashes of crimson that stain the blank pages within Chanel’s shifting narratives — her stories of the blood that a sick woman coughed onto white handkerchiefs…She was five, and her mother already very ill, when she was taken with her two sisters to stay at the home of an elderly uncle.

Chanel was to claim that her mother died of tuberculosis, which was not necessarily an accurate diagnosis of what killed Jeanne; poverty, pregnancy and pneumonia were as likely to blame…the family lived in a large enough house for the children to be kept in isolation from their sick mother.

Gabrielle maintained that she was 6 years old at the time; in reality, she was 11. Her father was absent again, travelling away from home, when Jeanne was found dead in her bed in a freezing room in Brive, on a bitterly cold February morning in 1895. History does not relate if Gabrielle watched her mother die, or for how long she and her siblings remained alone with the corpse."

In the novel and adapted play, Lady of Camellia suffered from tuberculosis as well, and on her deathbed, coughed into white handkerchiefs stained with red — replaying scenes from Jeanne’s death. Grief punished Chanel. For as a child she didn’t, and wouldn’t fully grasp the pains of sorrow, but a grown adult sitting in the theatre, Chanel was forced to face her bygone aches.

Chanel would go on to adopt Marguerite Gautier’s white camellia as a memento to her mother’s death, and an emblem of her loss. Years later, when Chanel founded her millinery and fashion lines, the white camellia would surface again in all forms — prints, jewellery, hats, bags, buttons, corsages, interior decorations, furniture, and on paper bags. Pure, as the flower signifies, may be Chanel’s unerring memories of her mother.

"These replications were in some sense true to life, in that they had no scent — for the camellia is without fragrance, and therefore does not decompose from sweet-smelling purity to the odour of decay. It is, perhaps, the perfect symbol of death."

Bouton de Camélia collection is available at Chanel Fine Jewellery Boutiques. Excerpts from Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life, by Justine Picardie. Published by Harper Collins. Available here