Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life (2011) by Lisa Chaney
Let's see: France, fashion, turn-of-the-20th-century history. Yeah, I was ALL OVER this book. Bien sûr!
Most of us probably know Chanel because of her perfume (the world-famous Chanel N. 5) and certain suit/dress designs. But in her heyday, in the early decades of the 20th century, Chanel was the last word in fashion and haute couture. What she created, the women of Europe and America (and beyond) wore, and yet Chanel believed that it wasn't the clothing that makes the person, but the other way around.
With this biography of a major designer and businesswoman, Chaney gives us a pretty thorough picture of what it meant to be Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, effectively orphaned as a child and raised in a series of convents. Her rise to the top of the fashion industry was marked by a series of affairs with wealthy and powerful men (who financed her projects in the beginning) and her own determined individuality and desire for independence. Amidst changing tastes, the radical artistic philosophies of many of her friends (Stravinsky, Picasso, Dali, etc.), two world wars, and a series of failed relationships (with both men and women), Chanel designed suits, dresses, hats, and shoes that encouraged women to physically experience the freedom that many desired. Along with the corsets and tight waists, Chanel tossed aside the belief that women's clothing was simply a tool with which to attract men. Her free-flowing, comfortable, simple outfits enabled women to participate in sports and generally move about unrestricted. In the age of flappers and sexual liberation (those Jazz Age people sure knew how to party), Chanel's clothing was exactly what "fashionable" women were looking for.
Her associations with dancers, painters, composers, writers, sculptors, barons, dukes, heads of state, and "high society women" enabled her to stay current with the artistic tastes of the age and feel included in a way that she never could while growing up. Over the course of her long and full life, Chanel worked with a series of writers to construct the "myth" of Coco Chanel- her way of controlling how future generations would view her and her creations. Chaney's access to previously undiscovered letters and other documents allowed her to present a fuller picture of Chanel than other biographies have been able to offer.
And so- I recommend this biography if you're interested in the three elements I mentioned above, or if you just love reading about the lives of famous people. The writing itself is nothing extraordinary- just a straight-up story about Chanel's life.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go spritz myself with some Chanel N. 5 and pretend that I'm outrageously fashionable...