|Coco Chanel & Salvador Dali, scanned from Chanel an Intimate Life by openwardrobe.co.za|
Modern readers will also get a mixed bag of feelings reading about women in the drawing of the 19th century who activately sought to cling to men for their survival: if they were unlucky and emotional, acting desperate for men who didn't give them much of a chance and used them as both recreational ground and reproductive machines, like Gabrielle's own unfortunate mother; if they were shrewd and calculating, using their guiles and beauty as hard currency to become irregulières and in some select cases grandes horizontales, i.e. famous courtesans, such as La Belle Otéro and Liane de Pougy. It is in this dubious (but often glamorized) latter milieu that Gabrielle Chanel gets into cognizantly, as an irregulière , a kept woman, after her lonely childhood and her early cabaret days, where she meets her formative lover and "the man of her life", Arthur "Boy" Capel. The book in fact starts with one of the discussions the famous designer has with Capel after he has successfully backed her up in her initial millinery projects: "I thought I'd given you a plaything, I gave you freedom" he sighs.
Chaney goes into much detail about the emotional life of Chanel and even though this portrayal is necessarily based on letters and biographies such as the memoir taken by Paul Morand, which can only reveal so much, and second-hand testimonies, which sometimes bear the special weight of the narrator, it seems that Gabrielle was a much more sensitive, responsive and agitated creature than we take her to be, especially after Capel's tragic death. I was especially distraught when reading about her final days, when the cocaine habit had taken the worst of her and she had been giving instructions to be tied on her bed at night so that she would avoid somnambulating naked amidst the corridors and the lobby of the Ritz that was to become her permanent residence.
The author takes things at the very top; the family background in rural France and the troubled formative years of Gabrielle Chanel which end in her abandonment by her father to Aubazine, the nun-run orphanage where she acquires much of her love for austerity, sharpness of aesthetics and love for the smell of cleanness. This is where her ideal for a perfume, to be later on materialized in the stupendous Chanel No.5. composed by Ernest Beaux, first takes seed: She admires the grandes cocottes because they smell pleasant. Speaking of society women Chanel would often say: "Ah yes, those women dressed in ball gowns, whose photographs we contemplate with a touch of nostalgia, were dirty....They were dirty. Are you surprised? But that's the way it was." Instead her own perfume differentiates itself in that it is a contstructed scent, not mimicking nature in order to mask humanity, but which relays the idea of a clean human being ready to please and be pleased. The book doesn't devote as much space or interest in Chanel No.5 or any of the other acclaimed perfumes issued when Chanel was alive, such as Bois des Iles, Cuir de Russie, Chanel Gardenia or Chanel No.19 perfume (or the even more cryptic and mystery ladden Chanel No.46 issued during the war). It certainly isn't as jam-packed with theories and factoids as the rewriting of the No.5 legend that Tilar Mazzeo undertook in The Secret of Chanel No.5 book. But there are still some interesting facts about the creation of this icon in the fragrance industry for those interested.
What the book seems to be unable to convincingly showcase, much as it tries and partially succeeds into, is show the genius of Chanel's fashions. The problem is one of format, rather than of effort: Only a coffee table book format could do justice to the wonderful designs that truly liberated women from the restrictions of La Belle Epoque which relished effect rather than functionality. Chaney does give emphasis into the silhouette that Chanel established, gives plenty of insight into how the atelier worked and lots of gossip on the relationship of Coco Chanel with her contemporaries and colleagues, from Poiret (her first potent rival) and Schiaparelli (whom she loathed) to Balenciaga (whom she respected, even though she never showed him the graciousness he exhibited towards her). There is also plenty of insights into her property (with extensive references to La Pausa, the house she had built and which she oversaw herself); her conducting of business, including her turbulent relationship with the Wertheimers; her entourage of artists and entrepreneurs from Serge Lifar and Diaghilev to her confidante Misia Sert, Cocteau and Reverdy; and of course her string of influential lovers after the loss of Capel, among which feature prominently the emigré count Dmitri Pavlovich, composer Igor Stravinsky and "Bend d'Or" commonly known as the Duke of Westminster.
Lisa Chaney is thorough and if you thought this is just a book on Coco's fashions or Chanel perfumes, you're in for a surprise. The scope covered is much, much wider, taking the stepping stone of a biography into a glimpse of European history: a dying era, a mad resurgence, a world wide war and the growth that follows its aftermath. It's not light reading, but it's worth it.
Disclosure: I was sent a copy for reviewing purposes.