Review: Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History

Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History - Rhonda Garelick

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, in return for an honest review.

 

Published September 30, 2014 by Random House Publishing Group

608 pages

 

(While technically speaking I haven’t finished this, I wanted to get my thoughts down, as I plan to dip in and out of it for a while, rather than trying to down it all at once.)

 

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was a prolific and fairly effective liar. Biographers and design fetishists like to say something more grand, like “self-mythologizer,” and I suppose when you are a brand first and a person second that is the expectation. But let’s call it like it is; Coco Chanel delighted in telling lies that would obscure and romanticize what she considered a boring and pitiable childhood and adolescence. She also notoriously shut down nearly every attempt to write (or more accurately, publish) her biography in her lifetime, and even beyond the grave. So, in undertaking this project, Rhonda Garelick has set herself quite a challenge. And she has succeeded marvelously, so far as I can say.  By taking on Chanel’s story and treating it as more than just the events in a single life, she has constructed a grand history of figures and events spanning the 80-plus years of Chanel’s life, allowing the time, place, and people surrounding the designer to tell us the story Chanel never would. The book is massive in scope (and literal size at 608 pages), and minute in detail.  Every person, large or small, that touched Chanel’s life is in here, and every historical and personal event Garelick can substantiate with any degree of authenticity is likewise captured.

 

Chanel was a bundle of contradictions and was forever trying to find acceptance among the social elite and alleviate her sense of inferiority as a lower-class orphan. Her survival instincts were impeccable, though they often caused her to make questionable decisions; she was effectively a Nazi sympathizer, and she was well-known as the mistress of a string of married men. But she is also revered as a liberator of women from the oppression of voluminous and restrictive clothing (as well as certain social mores), and one of the first couturiers to give her seamstresses paid vacations.  She was a business woman when it was not only uncommon, but often unacceptable, and she pulled herself up from the bottom rung of the social ladder using her charm and ingenuity- making connections, and using every opportunity that came her way. Despite shrouding her own life in a romantic fog, she was notoriously clear-eyed about the ways of the world, and not afraid to make enemies.

 

The designer’s personal and professional life is at the forefront, but the many movements and influences that shaped her designs are detailed as well.  She has been credited with the “invention” of the Little Black Dress, which anyone interested in fashion history knows is a bit of a tall tale. And yet, it can’t be denied that she brought a whole new perspective to fashion- for good and ill. While she freed women in a physical sense from stays and layers, her creations were monumentally expensive for all of their simplicity, cheap fabrics, and costume jewelry, and her silhouette required a complete 180-degree reversal from the previous expectations for women; slim was in and dieting practically became a competitive sport. She also can be credited with the creation of the now commonplace celebrity-designer relationship, as well as the commodification of her own name, now immortalized in the interlocking Cs seen on her luxury goods for decades and still omnipresent around the world.

 

The breadth of Garelick’s research is astonishing, and the narrative, though occasionally rendered a bit heavy by so much detail, is entertaining. I plan on stretching it out for a while, and enjoying it the whole way.

 

(Cross-posted at Goodreads: Mademoiselle)