Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History
Rhonda K. Garelick
Certain lives are at once so exceptional, and yet so in step with their historical moments, that they illuminate cultural forces far beyond the scope of a single person. Such is the case with Coco Chanel, whose life offers one of the most fascinating tales of the twentieth century—throwing into dramatic relief an era of war, fashion, ardent nationalism, and earth-shaking change—here brilliantly treated, for the first time, with wide-ranging and incisive historical scrutiny.
Coco Chanel transformed forever the way women dressed. Her influence remains so pervasive that to this day we can see her afterimage a dozen times while just walking down a single street: in all the little black dresses, flat shoes, costume jewelry, cardigan sweaters, and tortoiseshell eyeglasses on women of every age and background. A bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume is sold every three seconds. Arguably, no other individual has had a deeper impact on the visual aesthetic of the world. But how did a poor orphan become a global icon of both luxury and everyday style? How did she develop such vast, undying influence? And what does our ongoing love of all things Chanel tell us about ourselves? These are the mysteries that Rhonda K. Garelick unravels in Mademoiselle.
Raised in rural poverty and orphaned early, the young Chanel supported herself as best she could. Then, as an uneducated nineteen-year-old café singer, she attracted the attention of a wealthy and powerful admirer and parlayed his support into her own hat design business. For the rest of Chanel’s life, the professional, personal, and political were interwoven; her lovers included diplomat Boy Capel; composer Igor Stravinsky; Romanov heir Grand Duke Dmitri; Hugh Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster; poet Pierre Reverdy; a Nazi officer; and several women as well. For all that, she was profoundly alone, her romantic life relentlessly plagued by abandonment and tragedy.
Chanel’s ambitions and accomplishments were unparalleled. Her hat shop evolved into a clothing empire. She became a noted theatrical and film costume designer, collaborating with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Luchino Visconti. The genius of Coco Chanel, Garelick shows, lay in the way she absorbed the zeitgeist, reflecting it back to the world in her designs and in what Garelick calls “wearable personality”—the irresistible and contagious style infused with both world history and Chanel’s nearly unbelievable life saga. By age forty, Chanel had become a multimillionaire and a household name, and her Chanel Corporation is still the highest-earning privately owned luxury goods manufacturer in the world.
In Mademoiselle, Garelick delivers the most probing, well-researched, and insightful biography to date on this seemingly familiar but endlessly surprising figure—a work that is truly both a heady intellectual study and a literary page-turner.
Praise for Mademoiselle
“A detailed, wry and nuanced portrait of a complicated woman that leaves the reader in a state of utterly satisfying confusion—blissfully mesmerized and confounded by the reality of the human spirit.”—The Washington Post
“Writing an exhaustive biography of Chanel is a challenge comparable to racing a four-horse chariot. . . . This makes the assured confidence with which Garelick tells her story all the more remarkable.”—The New York Review of Books
“Broadly focused and beautifully written.”—The Wall Street Journal
From the Hardcover edition.
signed “tenderly, Coco.” Handwritten note from Chanel to Fenosa (illustration credit 11.4) That tenderness was real, but the relationship foundered. Fenosa found too much about Chanel’s world repellent. Unlike most of her friends, he had an inner compass pointed always toward progressive causes, republicanism, and empathy. While clearly not averse to borrowed luxury, Apel-les could not tolerate the disjunction between the atmosphere on Place Vendôme and the war he could feel but not yet see.
Capel to Henry Hughes Wilson, October 23, 1915, Imperial War Museum, London, HHW correspondence (cited hereafter as IWM), 2/82/7, letter 18. 136 Re Wilhelmina: Arthur Capel to Henry Hughes Wilson, October 20, 1915, IWM, 2/82/7, letter 15. 137 “balanc[ing] political and military”: Arthur Capel to Henry Hughes Wilson, January 10, 1916, IWM, letter 33, and December 24, 1915, letter 30, respectively. 138 French diplomat Jules Cambon: “Winston in favour of War council,” Capel writes to Henry
was quickly learning, that imparted value to the clothes. Their worth derived from the persona she was developing and the glamorous life she was leading. “People knew me, they knew who I was, nowhere could I pass unnoticed.… The curiosity to which I was subjected became insatiable and followed me constantly, and one could say it was one of the elements contributing to my success. I was my own advertisement, I always have been.” An October 1916 article in Women’s Wear Daily, with a Biarritz
entertained, and the friends he frequented. Dmitri must have been keenly aware of being spied upon, for the file mentions that he had asked his concierge to keep his identity a secret (a request obviously disregarded). It was perhaps this surveillance and the fear of prying eyes that prompted Chanel to install Dmitri at Bel Respiro after Stravinsky left. They took another extended vacation in 1922, when she whisked him off to Biarritz where she rented Ama Tikia, a white villa hidden by dunes,
the original “brand” of France, he insisted in several published articles, could fend off the attacks launched by the likes of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Pablo Picasso (whose interest in African statuary disgusted Iribe), and Jewish playwright Henry Bernstein (perhaps also targeted for being one of Chanel’s former lovers). Modern fashion and fabric were also anathema to Iribe; he ranted against “undistinguished,” “machine-made” clothing, particularly those “in solid colors.” For Iribe, a