For Coco Chanel, the Duchess of Windsor’s declaration that “you can’t be too rich or too thin” was holy writ. Born into poverty in 1883, she was worth the equivalent of almost $1 billion before she was 50. To the age of modernism, she contributed a streamlined female silhouette that radically transformed the shape of women’s bodies: By jettisoning armors of undergarments and pounds of voluminous fabric, she created a fashion that cloaked women with an explicitly modern identity. Her couture facilitated freedom of movement and trumpeted the importance of physical fitness and youth—two essential ingredients that became associated with modernism.
This new biography argues that Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel “forged the look of modern womanhood as we know it.” In addition to streamlining women’s fashion, she helped pioneer “bobbed” hair, the popularity of suntans, and a revolutionary perfume, Chanel No. 5. But Rhonda K. Garelick insists that Chanel’s life is “even more compelling when studied in relationship to European history, especially the interwar period—the era that launched her to stardom.” So while much of this study is a fascinating look at how Chanel used fashion to transform women’s identity in the early 20th century, it also throws fresh light on the lingering wartime questions that shadow her reputation.
Garelick does a superb job of connecting Chanel to the context of her times. She grew up in a Catholic orphanage, where her daily dress was a black uniform; the religious life had little appeal for young Gabrielle, but the uniforms were an idea she retained. Her biographer notes that Chanel couture created a “wearable personality” that was, itself, a uniform: Coco became a model for others and was “arguably the most copied woman of the 20th century.”
When she left the convent at age 18, Chanel faced an economic quandary that confronted every young woman without financial means: Although she worked as a seamstress and sang in a local café, she barely made enough money to survive. In Belle Époque Paris, the life of a courtesan offered one way out of poverty. Wealthy men provided a path to glamour, and Chanel, like many others, attached herself to a patron. She lived with him in a grand manor, and he set her up in a shop to pursue her “little hat hobby.” Chanel’s hats became all the rage, and soon, another patron—the dashing Boy Capel—moved her to a shop in the heart of Paris’s luxury district on Rue Cambon. Capel was the great love of her life, and he converted Chanel to the kind of superb tailoring found in men’s bespoke clothes.
Chanel’s business grew exponentially after World War I. She knew everyone in the world of art and culture, from Jean Cocteau to Igor Stravinsky. She designed costumes for Diaghilev’s 1924 The Blue Train and was part of the world of Bakst, Fokine, Picasso, and Satie. By the mid-1920s, she had evolved a style that American Vogue tagged “the Chanel look,” which included the LBD (Little Black Dress) and long strands of oversize pearls. She had also created a wildly popular new perfume, Chanel No. 5, that combined floral and botanical essences with synthetic aldehydes.
Men continued to be essential components to Chanel’s life. Determined never to marry, she filled her life with men who could enhance her status, much as she had done as a young coquette. In the 1920s, she lived with the Duke of Westminster at Eaton Hall and made key connections that would be important to her during and after World War II. She went on hunting parties with such luminaries as David Lloyd George, Anthony Eden, Charlie Chaplin, and, most important, Winston Churchill, who wrote his wife, “The famous Coco turned up and I took a great fancy to her. A most capable and agreeable woman with the strongest personality.”
The tweedy style of British country life found its way into her collections in the mid- and late ’20s. As Garelick notes, “Filtered through Chanel’s aesthetic, all these ultra-British, masculine style elements reemerged to look somehow French and feminine.” Chanel returned to Paris in 1931, and her fashion empire flourished. All of the simple, sleek, and practical basics of her couture were in place by 1939: skirt suits, slim-fitting blouses, boyish trousers, ropes of costume jewelry, and the double-C insignia. The Chanel style had emerged as a “total look.”