A SPLENDID LIST OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS is frequently attributed to Coco Chanel: utility, ease of movement, the New Woman unburdened of corset. Masculinization! Casualization! Skirt suits, wool jerseys, sunbathing, sportswear, and the bob.
Never mind that Chanel was actually first to none of these novelties. All of them and more are hers, folded into a little black dress whose economy of line is invariably praised as either classic or modern. Unparalleled in stature by any of her contemporaries similarly working toward bold sartorial simplification — Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Jean Patou or Madeleine Chéruit — she is the enduring icon of a historical moment and, as her fans would have it, transhistorical style. From the outset Chanel’s celebrity depended on confounding the woman and the dress: her life and her clothing echoing each other’s meanings, evincing lifestyle fantasies for a world reborn.
With icons come hagiography, and the past few years have seen a stack of books — at least seven since 2010 — and three biopics on the subject of Chanel. But, as any devotee might tell you, the woman makes a slippery subject. The latest effort, Lisa Chaney’s Chanel: An Intimate Life, though likely the most thoroughly researched biography to date, still demonstrates the limits of representing this laconic, witty, imperious woman. A celebrity for half a century, Chanel took great pains in crafting her myth and obscuring certain passages of her life. Self-conscious about her writing, she corresponded infrequently and with little expression and did not keep a journal. Instead, she left us a wealth of aphorisms — “A woman has the age she deserves” — clever, often contradictory, and revealing nothing of the aphorist. But even if the person remains largely unknowable, Chanel the celebrity, the couturière, is less opaque. We have her career and business model to work from, her brilliant craft of persona, thousands of designs, and her seductive lifestyle modernism. Only in relation to broader aesthetic and political currents can any sense be made of her life and designs; only then can we move from the mythic to the historical.
Gabrielle Chanel was born in 1883 into a family of artisans and small merchants from the Cévennes. Enduring the early loss of her mother and her father’s abandonment, she was passed at 11 into the care of nuns and came of age in Moulins, a lively garrison town on the Allier whose economy and daily life revolved around a large military presence. The officers, pillars of political reaction in the Third Republic, brought to Moulins certain employment opportunities without which Chanel might never have stumbled into her famed career. She altered uniforms, sang at La Rotonde (the local café-concert), and became mistress to a succession of well-bred lieutenants.
In Chaney’s finest chapte...read more