Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by by Rhonda K. Garelick

Mademoiselle by Rhonda K. Garelick was the most riveting biography I have read in a long while. Chanel's stranger-than-fiction life, her unique vision, and her many lovers alone make for fascinating reading. But Garelick's biography probes deeper and delivers a complex portrait of the 20th century's most distinctive fashion voice.

Chanel was driven by a need for legitimacy and power, willing to do what it takes. She was a dictatorial and unsympathetic boss. She romanced friend's husbands, her friendships were fraught with competitive tension, and she could change alliances as it suited her. Yet men and women were charmed by her, attracted to her like moths to a flame.

Chanel's greatest creation was Chanel. She shed her past and rewrote it. She bought off and distanced her relatives in an effort to reinvent herself. Born to in the lowest class, she found work as a chorus line coquette. She became attached to in a playboy's harem where she learned the ways of the upper crust and met her true love, Boy Capel. Boy support Chanel's nascent millinery business which grew into her Chanel brand clothing.

Chanel knew the great avant garde lights of the 20s and 30s, artists of all disciplines. She lost her true love and a fiancée, had many lovers, but never achieved the one thing she desperately wanted: marriage--preferably to a titled man.
1927 little black dress in wool jersey
I had not realized that every 20th c. fashion trend started with Chanel: the boyish sleek dresses, the bobbed hair, the acceptance of costume jewelry and fake furs, the use of jersey for day wear (previously used for men's underwear only!), the bathing suit, the cardigan sweater, the sailor blouse, the pleated skirt, the little black dress, beach wear loose pajama pants, and even her legendary Chanel No. 5, a complex perfume that was not overtly floral.

Chanel believed clothing should enhance the natural body, have impeccable fit that allowed full range of motion, with an elegance of style.

Because larger, older women did not look well in Chanel clothes, the cult of youth was also her doing. Chanel herself proudly kept her figure and muscle tone.

Chanel was anti-Semite and supported the philosophy of the rising Nazi regime. Henry Ford, Charles Lindberg, The Duke of Windsor Edward and Wallace Simpson were all sympathetic to fascism. Chanel closed her house in 1939. During the Nazi occupation of France she became involved with an SS officer and was part of a clandestine mission to broker peace with Churchill, offering peace for capitulating to Germany's demands. Was her motivation political or was she doing what it took to survive? Her nephew, perhaps son, was imprisoned and she was desperate to have him released.

When Christian Dior's "New Look" returned to corsets and padding Chanel reopened her house to battle what she saw as a return to the overwrought styles she had reacted against in her early career. Jackie Kennedy wore a Chanel suit when President Kennedy was assassinated.

Garelick's style and presentation of the material is accessible and a pleasure to read. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a good biography, is interested in fashion or history, or is fascinated by complex characters. I can not say I like Chanel as a human being, but I enjoyed every page of this biography.

I appreciate NetGalley and Random House allowing me access to the prepublication e-book.
Mademoiselle by Rhonda K. Garelick
Random House, publication September 30,2014 
608 pages
ISBN 978-4000-6952-1

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