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 chapter, she situates Chanel’s early adulthood within the constraining options faced by women of modest means in the fin de siècle. Tracing the intricate gradations between courtesans, kept women, and prostitutes, the author leads us through a dizzying classification system of women whose survival, and occasional abundance, depended on their bodies — la fille libre, la fille en carte, la cocotte, la biche, la lorette, la grande horizontale — shading into other spheres — the cabaret, the theater, and the music hall. This composite milieu of prostitutes and performers (its upper strata, in particular) fascinated society women, and often dictated fluctuations in style. Adolf Loos, writing a decade before his epochal “Ornament and Crime,” seized on the novel migrations of taste among late nineteenth-century European women: no longer the territory of the wellborn, “the leadership in women’s fashion belongs to that woman who has to develop the most sensitivity to the awakening of sensuality: the coquette.” Or, as Maxime du Camp put it a generation prior, “One does not know, nowadays, if it’s honest women who are dressed like whores, or whores who are dressed like honest women.”
Chanel may or may not have worked in some form of prostitution to supplement her earnings as a performer and a seamstress, but it was as an irrégulière, a “kept woman,” that she would navigate her way to financial independence. At 23 she was entertaining guests instead of audiences, passing long days of diversion at one chateau or another. Eventually growing restless, Chanel would call on lovers to fund her entrepreneurial ventures. Initially in business as a milliner, Chanel turned to daywear in 1911, opening her first boutique in Paris. Others soon followed, in 1913 in Deauville, and in 1915 in Biarritz, where she waited out the war.
By the time of armistice, Chanel had gained renown for the casual sophistication of her knits, marinière blouses, and slouchy cardigan skirt suits in jersey and tweed. “The First World War made me,” she said. “I woke up in 1919 and I was famous.” That same year the House of Chanel gained membership to the Chambre Syndicale de la haute couture parisienne, the organization of French couturiers.
Of all the novelties associated with Chanel’s early designs, perhaps none is more glorified than her introduction of wool jersey and other inexpensive fabrics previously beneath the reach of luxury clothing. Determined in part by shortages during the war, Chanel’s recourse to humble materials, like her baggy jackets and sweaters, extended the casualization of women’s wear already underway before the first trenches were dug. According to legend, these pliable textiles and loose-fitting forms offered unprecedented female mobility and sprung from a utilitarian ethic. Freeing women from their whalebone prison of the nineteenth century, Chanel not only reflected, but fostered social change. “I was working toward a new society,” she would say retrospectively of her early years in fashion. “A busy woman needs to feel comfortable in her clothes. You need to be able to roll up your sleeves.”
Chaney, too, insists that Chanel’s irresistibly practical designs met the needs of the new working woman. But, of course, women had been working, importantly in the textile industry. Female employment in France reached 30 percent by the 1880s, 40 percent by the early 1920s, and, anyway, Chanel designed exclusively for a small reserve of women who did not work. In order to squeeze into her eveningwear, adequate really only to Chanel’s body type — the new flat, straight feminine ideal — many of her clients, most perhaps, resorted to the corset, which indeed she had for sale at her boutique at 31 rue Cambon. Rather than utility, Chanel sold the look of utility. Across the fields of visual culture, haute couture fantasies of function entailed a rejection of prewar ornamentation and acquiescence to the vitality of the machine. Vogue dubbed the little black dress “the Chanel Ford,” while Léger observed that the mechanical object was “slowly subjugating the breasts and curves of woman.”
We glimpse the real impact of the war on Chanel’s designs in their reflection of the shifting tastes of French elites and the cultural reformulations that marked the dragging years of the war and the early twenties. Simplicity, order, and precision became the slogans for a return to France’s classical and rational essence. The rappel à l’ordre (or call to order) that rang through the arts echoed, as art historian Kenneth Silver has shown, revanchist political rhetoric, demanding the purge of foreign, especially German, contaminants. The avant-garde excesses of the prewar years would be tamed by the moral purity of a national style. Increasingly, the fashion press found in Chanel the condensation of these French verities of simplicity and reason: muted colors (beige and, from the mid-twenties onward, black), a straight silhouette, and reductive geometry. Chanel offered the woman of means the chance to embody this new classicism in sleeveless knee-length dresses that draped from the shoulders like ancient robes.
Even more than updated antiquity, the Chanel name came to denote the cult of youth and sexual license of the années folles. At 40 she was the garçonne. The slouchy, slightly insolent schoolgirl posture of her sweaters and jackets mirrored her own carefree lifestyle, thoroughly documented by the press. As Vogue noted in 1923, her dresses
made those who were wearing them look so young … There is not only a Chanel collection, there is a Chanel “style” made of youth, suppleness … [Its] somewhat sporty, yet very feminine look, met the needs of our time so well that women adopted it with enthusiasm as soon as it appeared.
But the very meaning of youth was subject to competing claims. On the one hand, the protrusion of youth into the French imagination issued from a perceived transformation of social mores, especially for young women. This, in turn, was met with either prurience or anomic handwringing. Others looked to the upcoming generation (vastly depleted by the war) and saw the promise of return, a salve to national weariness. The two images of youth — sexualized or redemptive — were not so much at odds as imbricated. Still, on occasion some subtle negotiation between the two was required, as when Jean Cocteau insisted — falsely — that Chanel and other women had only bobbed their hair to make wigs as a fundraiser for wounded French soldiers.
Cocteau, of course, was a fervent admirer of youth. He was also the great accommodator of classicism and modernism, and Chanel was an obvious choice to design the costumes for his Antigone in 1922, a production he described as “a photograph of the Acropolis taken from an airplane.” They collaborated again, two years later, when Chanel dressed the dancers of the Ballets Russes in sportswear for Le train bleu. Set on the first-class only train between Marseilles and Paris, the production offered a celebration of luxury, leisure, sport and, as Cocteau put it, “hardhearted modern youth that pushes us around with impertinent contempt … Those superb girls who stride past swearing, with tennis racquets under their arm, and get between us and the sun.” A fine consolidation of all the current passions of Paris, Le train bleu helped Sergei Diaghilev prove beyond a doubt that the Ballets Russes had thoroughly overcome its feverish prewar exoticism. As one critic crowed, “The Russian ballet is no longer Russian: the cool, quiet, utterly distinguished colors of the ballet are as French as it is possible to be.”
Chanel often found herself surrounded with Russian émigrés. In addition to Diaghilev, Serge Lifar, and other members of the Ballets Russes, there was, of course, Stravinsky, whose affair with Chanel became the subject of a 2002 novel, adapted into a film in 2009. His Symphonies d’instruments à vent and Les cinq doigts, completed during their affair, serve as a virtual textbook for musical neoclassicism of the twenties, and were often praised by critics in precisely the same terms as her designs: ordered, simple, youthful and up-to-date. Chanel also kept company with a circle of impoverished aristocrats who had fled the Revolution; Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich (another lover) who had plotted to assassinate Rasputin; and a coterie of duchesses and countesses. Through the latter, in 1921, Chanel setup a workshop where Russian women would embellish her dresses with subtle embroidery.
Chanel was not alone among couturiers in turning to embroidery in the early twenties, but her use of traditional, Eastern ornamentation entailed a sly reintroduction of the exoticism of Paul Poiret (whom she had dethroned as preeminent French fashion designer), sublimated into detail. Rather than a sartorial “return of the repressed” or the Dionysian lurking within the Apollonian, the needles of her Russian atelier pointed the way to detailing as a site of delicate but exuberant ideological play. In phenomenally expensive garments made of inexpensive materials — what Poiret bitterly called her pauvre de luxe — class signifiers condensed and scattered into stitching, gilt buttons, and braided trim. These, in turn, played off the accessories that completed the Chanel look: costume jewelry, strings of fake pearls, or real and fake jewels worn together. Mixing high and low, the Chanel look hinged precisely on the ability to know the difference.
Yet the logic (and the game) of the look centered not on the distance between bespoke and mass-produced, but on the alchemy of valuation, transforming fake pearls and machine-woven jerseys into luxury commodities. By freeing surplus value from artisanal craftsmanship, Chanel’s pauvre de luxe signaled a shift in haute couture, a herald of the multi-billion dollar luxury goods industry of our own era, in which proliferating brands produce apparel of a quality generally indistinguishable from down-market wares. Things would now become their descriptions, and no material was too humble, no design too simple to be rendered opulent by the ideological mystification of a market society. In his novel, Le Poète assassiné, Guillaume Apollinaire satirized exactly this, the emergence of the Midas touch of the luxury commodity. “This year,” explains Tristouse Ballerinette (based on the painter Marie Laurencin, whose portrait of Chanel the designer declined):
fashions are bizarre and common, simple and full of fantasy. Any material from nature’s domain can now be introduced into the composition of women’s clothes … Fish bones are being worn a lot on hats. Steel, wool, sandstone and the file have made an abrupt entry into the vestmentary arts … Fashion … no longer looks down on anything. It ennobles everything. It does for materials what the Romantics did for words.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, a shadow industry of couture copyists emerged, selling mass-produced knockoffs to middle-class department store shoppers, especially in America. Couturiers then faced the question of whether or not to authorize authentic copies — the antecedent to the ready-to-wear line — a dilemma that art historian Nancy J. Troy has related to the questions of original and copy in modernist visual art. Chanel, unbothered by these mass-market replicas, sometimes even invited copyists to her shows. For one thing, she had less at stake financially in her designs. From its launch in 1921, the perfume N°5 generated the bulk of her profits. But she also recognized that “fashion does not exist until it goes down into the streets.” Popular imitation and dissemination only substantiated the exclusivity of her garments, whose value depended not on the cost of production, but on the cultivation of celebrity, the strength of the Chanel name, and the force of social stratification.
By the 1930s Chanel was backing away from the formal, “architectural” designs she had pioneered. Most observers agreed that she ceded primacy in this period to the “Surrealist” Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli, with whom she enjoyed a publicized rivalry. At the same time, she responded to the deepening depression and sharply polarized public life in France by retreating into quaint revivalism: bodice dresses, taffetas, large bows and puff sleeves. These years also saw her affair with illustrator and journalist Paul Iribe. In his conservative nationalist satirical journal, Le Temoin, he based his depiction of Marianne, emblem of France, on Chanel (both in features and in dress — that is, when she wasn’t naked and violated at the hands of communists). Chanel, meanwhile, continued her flight into nostalgia. In the face of the Stavisky Affair, right-wing riots, and a Popular Front victory, she brought out tricolour-themed evening gowns and a modest full-skirted peasant look. Imagine, then, the bitterness of the betrayal when her own workers participated in the great general strike of May-June 1936, a treachery not soon forgotten. Three years later, without warning or compensation to her two thousand employees, she shut the House of Chanel.
She would not design another stitch for 15 years. She only returned from her Swiss exile and unshuttered the House of Chanel because sales of N°5 were dropping. Then, for another couple decades, she turned out updated variations on the skirt suit and little black dress, now recast as timeless essentials. Like nearly every couturier in the nineteen-fifties, Chanel also launched a ready-to-wear line.
In Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life, Lisa Chaney does not ever let herself get too dazzled by Chanel the icon. Unfortunately, neither does she allow herself to probe with much acuity. She views Chanel as a historical subject only insofar as events directly touched the designer’s life and only to the extent that she can conjure a mood of beau monde gaiety, rattling off the attendees from one party to the next. Later she tries to reconstruct the desperation of the war years, but only to explain away Chanel’s inconvenient Nazi associations. Nor does she engage critically with Chanel’s lifestyle modernism, instead satisfied to emphasize that the designer counted among her friends an impressive roster of writers and artists. She describes Chanel, again and again, as modern, unconventional, an enemy of tradition, or “unbourgeois” (a particularly inapt term for an entrepreneur), as if insistence obviates discernment. In some instances we glimpse a tyrannical Chanel, mad with drive, possessed of a radical vision, and indifferent to those around her. But this too amounts to adoring portraiture, and, above all else, we are meant to respect her ambition. She’s Steve Jobs in a little black dress.
Chaney has sympathy for her subject and she takes a familiar tack, suggested by the subtitle An Intimate Life, in trying to discover the woman behind the icon. What intimacy does she offer? She is frank about Chanel’s opium use and bisexuality without adding much to the record. She speculates frequently on how Chanel “must have felt,” but this affectionate urge to get inside the couturière ends in a gentle but vague psychological portrait. She edits together a montage sequence of costume balls, banquets, and retreats to the south of France, a decades-long, champagne-soaked frolic with le tout Paris as caviar spills from tureens and a black jazz combo moans in the night. After a while it is numbing. More than anything, “intimate” here means sex and romance, as Chaney meticulously delineates Chanel’s love affairs with rich and famous men: Reverdy, Dalí, Picasso, Visconti, Duke of Westminster Hugh Grosvenor (said to have been the richest man in England), and the rest. Of course, structuring the biography around her male lovers, even though her myth rests so heavily on individual ambition, need not have been a contradiction if Chaney, for instance, could have traced the circulation of ideas, values, or form in these alliances. Instead she issues her amorous catalogue largely in terms of romance and heartbreak. She loved them all.
Perhaps she did, but two stand out: Arthur “Boy” Capel, the voluptuary son of an English financier, and Abwehr officer Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage. Running about a decade each, these proved the longest in her long list of relationships. If we follow Chaney’s model, marking each phase in the life of Chanel by the appearance of new lovers, these two men conveniently bookend her significant creative period. It was the Capel years, through the First World War, that witnessed her emergence as a designer, while the affair with Dincklage began a year after she shut the House of Chanel in 1940.
The latter affair has understandably been the subject of some controversy. While for years Chanel was thought guilty only of collaboration horizontale, an offense for which thousands of French women suffered public humiliation after the war, recent evidence has shown that her Nazi entanglements went quite a bit further. She appears in Abwehr records with a number (F-7124) and a codename (Westminster) and traveled with Dincklage to Berlin to meet SS intelligence chief General Walter Schellenberg. In 1944 she embarked on a bizarre effort to negotiate favorable peace terms for the Germans, trying to exploit her connection to Churchill, with whom she’d gone fishing and boar hunting before the war.
The question of Chanel’s collaboration tends to produce either extenuation or bland, gawking disapproval. Chaney opts for the mitigating take, concluding that Chanel was essentially apolitical and only out of naiveté got drawn into associations with such unsavory men. She just needed to be loved, to feel safe. At 57, she sought comfort and survival in the forty-four-year-old Dincklage; and besides, everyone collaborated on some level, didn’t they? It is a flimsy argument, and a mendacious one. Life in occupied France was indeed desperate, and many struggled just to feed themselves and keep warm. Chanel lived at the Ritz. The point is not that Chaney should condemn Chanel for shacking up with a Nazi and then, having fled France after the war, shacking up with him again in Switzerland. There is no shortage of sensationalist moralizing about this chapter of her life, and no political stakes in denouncing collaborators from the rostrum of the twenty-first century. But by her very insistence on emotional explanations, subordinating history to personality, Chaney leaves herself few other options for understanding her subject’s decisions. Her desire to really get Chanel, misguided at the outset, here leads her to callousness and circumvention.
It was the other love affair, with the English playboy Capel, that by most accounts — including Chanel’s own — really mattered. Not only because he underwrote her business in the early years and made important society introductions, but because he is said to have truly understood her. She never got over him. Yet for all the emphasis placed on Capel and the dogged research by which Chaney has now illuminated details of his previously obscure life, he emerges here a bon vivant businessman and little else. What can really be said of their relationship? They were in love. They took lovers. They lived well. They made money. They went to the beach in Normandie and on the Bay of Biscay. Surely, more than a shared passion for leisure and a healthy profit motive bound these two together, but from Chaney’s account one is hard pressed to identify anything so distinctive. To reproduce two personalities with any kind of precision and, in addition, their points of coalescence and divergence, presents a difficult task for any biographer. In this case, though, the significant time they spent apart, and their mutually reticent correspondence makes it impossible. Instead Chaney pieces together the picture of this couple largely from their movements and long subsequent reminiscences. The latter, whether from friends or from Chanel herself, need to be treated with circumspection: They all had a stake in crafting the image of Coco Chanel.
Therein lies the fundamental problem, not only with this chapter but with the very enterprise of trying to discover the woman behind the icon. An icon is evocative and mute. Behind it lie banalities. And while of course Chanel’s life was far from banal — she came from nothing, made millions, went to a lot of parties, knew famous people, and may have been a Nazi agent — her emotional life, at least as reconstructed here, certainly was. The true subject of a Chanel biography would be the image itself, forged with the aid of the press and Cocteau and Paul Morand and American consumer dollars. A story of self-fashioning, branding and salesmanship. A woman who became a label.