In the play of the Alexander Dumas novel of the same name, La Dame aux Camelias, a TB-stricken courtesan, Marguerite, falls in love with a respectable bourgeois, Armand. Their love is doomed, needless to mention, as is the heroine, whose happiness is thwarted at every turn by her social class and also her too proudly worn sexuality. Throughout the play, Marguerite is adorned by the camellias of the title; red when she is menstruating, pure white when she is open to love.
It was this play, it is often said, that captivated a very young Coco Chanel; inspired by it to adopt the camellia as her signature bloom, which featured on everything from shoes, to the lacquered screens in her Paris apartment, to dresses, jewellery, handbags and patterned fabric. The camellia was her simple, near symmetric wordless calling card, almost as iconic as the linked double Cs, but categorically more symbolic.
That Chanel's camellia fascination began with Dumas is but one angle on its origins. Another is that she identified with the likes of Marcel Proust and his artistic cohorts of late 19th-Century Paris, who pinned a single camellia to their jackets as a symbol of sophistication and also a degree of non-conformity.
Another story is that Boy Capel, the great love of Chanel's life, gave her a bouquet of camellias at the start of their affair. Often an element in wedding bouquets, thanks to their crisp whiteness and associations with enduring love, the camellia is more often a companion bloom in an arrangement and rarely a standalone selection. Capel's choice of it in such singular abundance would have been unusual, but unusual would have appealed to Chanel.
Gabrielle Chanel on the shoulder of her friend Serge Lifar in 1937
That their love was doomed contributes to the idea that Capel inspired her enduring camellia devotion, which saw Chanel seem almost to scatter them everywhere as she walked through her life's work. The wealthy Capel, an English shipping merchant and celebrated polo player, believed in Chanel from her earliest days. He financed her first shops and encouraged her independence as a businesswoman, an unusually enlightened attitude in 1910s Europe, and yet married someone else during their long love affair. Capel died in a car crash just before Christmas 1919, allegedly on his way to meet Chanel.
Her love of the camellia, some would have it, was informed by her love of Capel. Not just because of that first bouquet, but because of its clear but tough beauty, in keeping with her feelings for Capel.
The camellia has, of course, endured as an emblem of the Chanel house of fashion, beauty and fragrance long after its founder's death in 1971. Fabric camellias, which often feature on Chanel packaging, reportedly take up to 40 minutes to make by hand, each petal a heart-shape folded over to create full blooms. The camellia appears embossed on make-up palettes, on lipstick bullets, subtly and blatantly, a link to the past and yet perpetually in vogue.
Latterly, the House of Chanel has harnessed the camellia into skincare, specifically its Hydra Beauty range. On the grounds of the Chateau de Gaujacq, in the south-west of France, renowned conservationist, nurseryman and camellia expert Jean Thoby has been working with the House of Chanel since 2005.
There, he grows 2,000 varieties of camellias from five of the world's continents, over nearly five hectares of land. In 2009, Thoby brought forth the skin-hydrating properties of the Camellia japonica Alba Plena, a variety that was previously endangered. The properties of this specific plant bring lipids and fatty acids to the skin, replenishing and restoring elements lost through age and environmental aggressors, and they are the cornerstone of Chanel's latest addition to the range, the super-comforting Hydra Beauty Camellia Repair Mask.
"Brought over from Japan on the trade routes in the 17th Century," Thoby says of the Alba Plena, "it was one of the first flowers with symmetrically arranged and interlocking petals, an almost perfect geometric shape and a practically immaculate white hue. It is a plant as beautiful as it is hard to grow."
Coco Chanel at work, photographed by Roger Schall, 1937
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The camellia, originally cultivated in Asia, has traditional associations with longevity and fidelity. It is prized and admired as a winter-blooming flower, delicate and pristine, which comes forth on a plant of robust foliage that does not fall or fade in the cold months. It is a thing of beauty, but of resilience, too, characteristics which would have spoken to Chanel for obvious reasons.
She has always been admired as a woman who devoted her life to beauty, not from a position of comfort or privilege, but from tough beginnings and deprivation. She dedicated herself to beauty because she wanted to get as far from ugliness as she could. The winter-blooming camellia, a perfect thing blossoming so perfectly as the rest of nature withers and rots and falls to the ground was ideally suited to her, really.
The stories of how the camellia spoke to Chanel symbolically and romantically abound, but true to her nature, there were pragmatic and practical reasons, too. Aesthetically, the white camellia is utterly clean, almost clinically so. Worn on the shoulder of a garment or on a collar, it tied in beautifully with Chanel's edict that one should always wear white close to the face.
From a practical point of view, then, it is said that Chanel appreciated how the perfect appearance of the camellia was not accompanied by any fussy fragrance. Unlike a rose or even the then fashionable carnation, the camellia, devoid of fragrance, could fill vases in a room, or accessorise Chanel's outfit, without in any way interfering with the scent of her beloved No 5.
Whatever the reason Coco Chanel settled on the camellia as her floral signature, it was, characteristically, a smart choice. It is a bloom with a composition that lends itself to delicate creations and yet has a weighty elegance that works in bold design too. It's feminine and strong; it has delicacy and depth of character. It's the Chanel ideal, though Coco Chanel herself could not have foreseen how it would eventually pervade her brand's skincare, too.
Then again, maybe she could. That blanket approach of spreading what she loved into every aspect of her creations and designs was what made Coco Chanel special and is part of what informs the enduring appeal of the house in her name.
"What do you have at breakfast?" Chanel is said once to have been asked.
"A camellia," she is reported to have replied.
Chanel Hydra Beauty range is available from Chanel counters nationwide, including the new Hydra Beauty Camellia Repair Mask, €60. See brownthomas.com