An admiring but evenhanded portrait of Coco Chanel’s (1883-1971) life and loves.
Cultural biographer Garelick (Electric Salome: Loie Fuller's Performance of Modernism, 2007, etc.) fully acknowledges the spate of recent research into Chanel’s wartime collaboration with the Nazis from her Hotel Ritz perch in occupied Paris—e.g., Hal Vaughan’s hard-hitting Sleeping with the Enemy (2011). Though providing no new revelations, Garelick offers a fine psychological portrait of the poor orphaned girl who spent seven years in an abbey, where she learned to sew and feel safety within its reassuring order and cleanliness (traits with which she would later imbue her couture). From working as a seamstress with her aunt Adrienne, then trying her luck as a backing singer in cafes and “water girl” in the Vichy spas, she possessed charm rather than beauty and, more than anything, the drive to attain her freedom the only way she knew how: with lots of money. A companion to rich playboys, she found in Englishman Arthur Capel a like-minded feminist partner; he set her up making hats out of his Paris apartment, then among the fledgling clothing boutiques in Deauville and Biarritz. A natural saleswoman and commander of workers, she succeeded smashingly on her own terms, adopting mannish, comfortable clothing that freed the feminine form from corsets and bindings, elevating cheap jersey and faux pearls as elements of high style, and essentially remaking the female silhouette in her own image: boyish, slim-hipped, flat-chested and athletic. Garelick pursues the catalog of Chanel’s subsequent ill-fated lovers, her work with the Ballets Russes, her vast earnings from Chanel No. 5 and her fraught partnership with the Wertheimer brothers while frankly discussing her relentless, social-climbing attraction to right-wing, reactionary and racist elements.
Certainly a definitive portrait, especially considering Garelick’s intriguing venture into modern “branding.”