The Chanel bio is suddenly en vogue
Book synchronicity is a weird event. Suddenly, seemingly un-choreographed, a flood of books all on the same topic appear on the market. Then, of course, the question is which one to read. How in the world do you know which title to pick?
Coco Chanel is having something of a resurgence, with half a dozen books about her released in the past year, not to mention two movies (“Coco Before Chanel” and “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky”). It shouldn’t be a surprise — she revolutionized fashion and changed its whole direction for a hundred years. She liberated women from torturous corsets and hats that weighed twenty pounds. She also had glamorous affairs, ruled Paris and was hilariously acerbic. In an age when Lady Gaga is wearing dresses made from meat to award shows, it’s not really a surprise that pragmatic, casually chic Coco Chanel is reappearing in the public consciousness.
But which book about Chanel’s incredible, inspiring life should one read? I’ll sort through a stack and help you out:
“Chanel and Her World” by Edmonde Charles-Roux
Chanel was nothing but careful about her public image, and Charles-Roux is a horrible biographer — meaning she does not delve into areas Chanel would not approve of. Missing from the book: Chanel’s affair with a German during the occupation of Paris, the devastating depression that followed the death of the love of her life, Boy Capel, her very young age when she ran away with her older lover. That said, “Chanel and Her World” makes up for it with wonderful photographs of Chanel, Paris, the fashion and other figures from the time. She has extended pieces on peripheral figures like Dhiagilev and Colette. The whole book is beautifully done, you stop caring the Chanel seduced Charles-Roux away from the truth.
“The Allure of Chanel” by Paul Morand
The origins of the book are a little odd — supposedly Chanel spoke her life story to Paul Morand and he wrote everything down, shoved the whole project into a drawer and forgot about it. It’s written in the first person, but it’s unclear what is Chanel’s voice and what is Morand’s. Who cares. It’s acerbic as hell, hilarious and she dishes on lovers like Igor Stravinsky and friends like Dhiagilev. She talks about her difficult childhood, but shrugs most of it off (her mother died when she was young, and she was abandoned by her father to a pair of abusive aunts). “It is kisses, hugs, teachers and vitamins that kill children and prepare them for being weak or unhappy,” she tells us. It’s the best possible book on Chanel you can read, and now it’s been re-released by Pushkin Press with illustrations by Karl Lagerfeld.
“Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life” by Justine Picardie
Honestly, I still haven’t forgiven Picardie for fictionalizing the life of Daphne du Maurier in her novel “Daphne.” It wasn’t well done, and I have a thing about writers who use writers better than themselves as paper dolls in their own work. But this is about her Chanel biography. It’s serviceable, and she is willing to deconstruct the myths that Morand and Charles-Roux are not. She gets into the Nazi lover, the precociousness and the darker moments of her life. But it lacks the style of the others — sometimes the myth is preferable to the glaring truth.
“Chanel: The Couturiere at Work” by Amy de la Haye and Shelley Tobin
While it’s not great writing by any stretch of the imagination — it reads like ad copy from one end to the other — this is the book to get if you are interested in Chanel’s work. The focus here is on the clothing, the perfume, the jewelry. You get backstory to the fashion, as well as what else was going on at the time. Chanel hated much of the fashion of the era, describing the other designers as “leaders of decadence, they are the microbes of this gorgeous epidemic, the instigators of truly slanderous hats, the lauders of unwearable dresses, the long-winded and deceitful critics of stiletto heels…” (from Morand’s book). And you see why: the other designers of the time were cramming women into dresses, while Chanel designed dresses to be worn, walked in, danced in, moved in, lived in. Chanel was most proud of her work ethic, and it’s celebrated here.