02 December, 2009

Book 32 - Chanel: Her Life, Her World, the Woman behind the Legend

First of all, man I'm behind! I've read at least ten books that I haven't written up yet, so I'll probably do a couple of multiple-book posts soon for series and/or books that other people are unlikely to be interested in.

Secondly, it's December already! You may have noticed by the intensification of seasonal decorations around your village, town, or city, and/or by the fact that shops have started playing cheerful Christmas music incessantly. Good times.

Seasonal link of the day: Reindeer Training School.

And now, on to our feature presentation.

Title: Chanel: Her Life, Her World, the Woman behind the Legend (2009)

Author: Edmonde Charles-Roux

Why this book?
After watching Coco avant Chanel ("Coco before Chanel") I wanted to find a more, you know, accurate portrayal of the designer's life. This book was in fact the inspiration behind the film, which means that someone read this book, then got drunk and wrote a script which bares a kind of passing resemblance to a book which must have taken several years of pain-staking research.

So what's it all about anyway?
As I've probably mentioned before, it's kind of hard to give a plot summary of a biography, ("She was born, um, and then some stuff happens... and then she dies") but I will attempt to do so anyhow! Chanel's rather villainous peasant father abandons her and her brothers and sisters at quite a young age, leaving Chanel at a charity school run by a religious order. When she's old enough to leave, Chanel and her aunt (who is about the same age as her) become dressmakers' assistants in a town full of cavalrymen. Chanel soon finds she has a passion for horses, and strikes up relationship with the upper-class, horse-owning Balsan.

Chanel is desperate to make a name for herself somehow, and just as desperate to leave her peasant roots behind her. She starts designing hats as a hobby, then, with financial backing from her new lover Arthur 'Boy' Capel, opens a shop in Paris. With help from her aunt and her younger sister, Chanel manages to open several new stores during the First World War, when exiled Russian aristocrats and the French elite still wished to shop and dress to impress. Chanel's empire slowly grows, and Chanel has a string of affairs - her lovers are mostly from either the French and English elite, or the extended group of artists, musicians, dancers and writers she spent her time with.

Chanel's story is not exactly a happy one, despite her success. Her cynicism makes her a good businesswoman, but also allows her to see all-too-clearly the realities of her own life: that the men she love most will never marry her, that she cannot afford to be anything other than completely independent, that she can never let the media know the truth of her origins. She gives the impression of always looking over her shoulder, waiting for someone to take away everything she has built for herself.

The Good and the Bad:
You don't really have to be incredibly knowledgeable about fashion to enjoy this book. Everything I know about fashion comes from Project Runway, and at no point did Coco Channel have to design a red-carpet gown entirely out of dead insects in order to win a trip for two to New York Fashion week. On the other hand, Charles-Roux spends a lot of time going off into tangents about the celebrities and aristocrats that Chanel hung out with, and the political and social trends and events of the time. You certainly couldn't write a biography of Chanel without placing her firmly in the socio-political context she was living and designing in, but it can be pretty heavy going reading about the political machinations of French and Bristish industrialists who only have very tentative connections with her. Then again, we also get details about Picasso and the great choreographer Diaghelev, and many other artists and artistes that Chanel hung out with, which I found far more fascinating, so perhaps it's only a question of taste.

So, should I read it or what?

Like I said, you don't need to be knowledgeable to read this book, but you do at least need to be a little bit interested in fashion history. Chanel was, after all, one of the driving forces behind such innovations as MAKING DRESSES THAT DON'T HAVE WAISTS. Thank God for Chanel. And yeah, you should totally read it.

1 comment:

Sadako said...

I'm interested but not knowledgeable (yeah, my knowledge all comes from Proj Runway and Top Model, and Claudia Kishi), so sounds right up my alley.