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 […]