On a recent library trip I spotted the Chanel Biography Chanel, her Life, Her World, The Woman Behind the Legend by Edmonde Charles-Roux.
I love fashion and I have always admired the beauty and classic femininity of ‘Coco’ Gabrielle Chanel’s designs so I decided to read it. I don’t usually choose biographies, possibly because there are very few famous personalities that inspire me to want to know every detail about their lives so I must admit that I started the book with some trepidation… and in fact didn’t finish it.
My not finishing the biography has less to do with the quality of the writing and content and more to do with my impatience to watch the film Coco Avant Chanel which I ordered from Love Film and had been waiting to be watched for more than two weeks. One hundred and fifty pages into the biography I gave in to the appeal of Audrey Tautou and a two-hour film instead.
Edmonde Charles-Roux’s biography really is well written and gives an unexpected insight into Gabrielle Chanel’s childhood, her youth and development into the woman and icon she became. I think that it is fair to say that when one thinks of the House of Chanel, one thinks of luxury and expensive tailoring so it might surprise readers to learn that Gabrielle was in fact born into a poor peasant family in a French backwater in 1881, dumped into an orphanage and had to fight her way to escape obscurity, dabbling in a singing career (where she got the name ‘Coco’). She even a wealthy man’s mistress before bucking the trend for frou-frou by creating simple and chic hats for a living. The rest, as they say, is history. Against the odds and the restraints her gender imposed on her at that time, she became the head of a vast business empire where she socialised with the likes of Picasso and Stravinsky.
What Charles-Roux does exceptionally well in the biography is to humanise Gabrielle. He really digs into her background in great depth to really understand how her past experiences influenced her approach to fashion. He paints a critical portrait of her balancing her faults (a tendency to embroider the truth) by showing the reasons why and also how they made her unique. The overall impression that I got was that Gabrielle was a fascinating and complex woman who would have been difficult to get to know but whose values were reflected in her designs.
“Adopting one of Gabrielle’s creations was like crowning yourself with a riddle, and it also involved learning to be attractive by going against the stream.”
Influenced by a love of things English (including her patron and lover ‘Boy’ Arthur Capel) and by military style and practical riding clothes, Gabrielle found ways to bring out the natural shape of the female form without constricting it at a time when corsets and feathers were the norm. She chose to wear black and crisp white shirts as well as, shock-horror…trousers, when other women were adorned in garish colours and huge skirts . An audacious and truly forward-thinking woman who wore what felt good, yet was stylish and encouraged other women to do the same.
So, although I didn’t finish the biography, I did learn a great deal from it. It was a little too detailed for me, but I think that Coco Avant Chanel which was based on it benefited from this greatly. The film was really quite wonderful to watch, and Audrey Tautou really was the Gabrielle Chanel of my imagination from reading the book, but even better – on screen, in cinematic glory! The film only touches on the orphanage and doesn’t set the scene of the family background in great depth which I thought actually worked well as this was a bit too much for me when reading the book. I was impressed at how much it brought out the behaviour of Gabrielle as described by Charles-Roux – the fibbing, her tom-boyish attitude.
Of course the film is also totally gorgeous to watch. Fashion is a visual thing, so seeing images of the dresses and designs contrasted on-screen was brilliant. I also thought what the film did well was to make her character even warmer, playing on her relationships with Etienne Balsan (her rich lover) and Arthur Capel who as a self-made man really seemed to understand her as well as her sister whose promising love-interests repeatedly left her high and dry.
Finally, one thing that struck me both in the film and when reading the book was how amazing it must have been for Gabrielle Chanel to have lived through such different time periods from the late 19th Century right through to 1971 and how impressively contemporary she remained right through to modern times.
The biography(at least the first half!) is excellent, however I think it is probably more suited to people who really want to know everything about Chanel in-depth with a bit of a historical perspective. I thought that the film was utterly enjoyable and would recommend it highly. It does move at a reasonably slow pace but is beautiful and engaging all the way through.
I think only you will know if you would be interested in this but for me I found the story of Coco Chanel fascinating and inspiring.
Who has inspired you (real or imagined) lately?