“During the course of an extraordinary and unconventional journey – from abject poverty to the invention of a new kind of glamour – [Coco Chanel] helped to forge the idea of modern woman.” Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life by Lisa Chaney is a compelling account of a complicated woman who left an indelible mark on the way we dress, the way we think of fashion, and our idea of the modern woman.
“Indeed, a woman’s wardrobe today is virtually unthinkable without, at the very least, one of Gabrielle’s innovations: a little black dress, costume jewelry, any bag with a shoulder strap, jumpers for women, trousers for woman, suits for women, slingback shoes, a trench coat, a strapless dress and, finally, that perfume in its modernist bottle, so iconic it has remained virtually unchanged for ninety years.”
Before reading the book, I knew a bit about Coco Chanel’s life and of course knew that her iconic suit has long been a mark of taste & money, but there was so much about her complicated life and lasting impact on fashion I didn’t know. Chanel’s father was an itinterant peddler. Her mother died when she was 12 and she was sent to a convent where she dreamed of being a stage performer. Ashamed of her past and judged strongly for some of her decisions (she befriended high level Nazi’s during French occupation in WWII), Chanel re-wrote much of her own history when recounting it in later years.
Lisa Chaney did a notable amount of research to uncover Chanel’s true past, and didn’t pull any punches in re-counting it. “I make no claim to have uncovered everything or to have solved all of the mysteries Gabrielle Chanel left behind. But in illuminating some of them, and in presenting her without sentimentality yet with all of her pathos and seductive complexity, I hope I have helped humanize this deeply complex character, one of the most remarkable women of the last century.”
Indeed, what I took away from the book is a reminder that even icons are human. But it was Chanel’s very human characteristics that allowed her to so profoundly impact fashion. “Gabrielle had not been uniquely responsible for changing women’s appearance during the first decades of the century. While undoubtedly one of only a handful of initiators of a new, easy kind of female glamour, Gabrielle was different in that she herself lived the emancipated life her clothes were made for…More than any other designer, Gabrielle had been responsible for the democratization of fashion, making it more accessible to the majority than ever before.”
I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in fashion, history, and their intersection. “Gabrielle’s great gift lay in paying ruthless attention to the texture of the moment. If fashion can be said to illuminate or articulate that, then that was Gabrielle. Acting as a barometer, she gave her world what it wanted, just before it recognized the need. Her work was always just that one step ahead because she intuited her times better than most of those around her.”