22nd Sep 2011
Chanel: An Intimate Life by Lisa Chaney
With the possible exception of Marilyn Monroe, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel could quite easily take the title of most-written about woman of the last century.
Acclaimed biographer Lisa Chaney, author of Hide-and-Seek with Angels: The Life of J.M. Barrie and Elizabeth David, is the latest to investigate the undisputed fashion icon.
Following Justine Picardie’s Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, published in paperback in July and for which the author was granted unprecedented access to the Chanel archives, Lisa Chaney’s biography reassesses certain Chanel facts and fictions other authors have taken at face value.
At almost five hundred pages, it takes the reader from the rural homes of Chanel’s ancestors, through her unhappy childhood, smashing to smithereens some of Gabrielle’s characteristic ‘revisions’ to her history that she would later become renowned for.
Using sources such as Paul Morand’s memoir The Allure of Chanel, Chaney recounts Gabrielle’s time with Etienne Balsan, and her much-documented relationship with Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, fictionalised in Paul Morand’s Lewis et Irène and in the 2009 Audrey Tatou film Coco Before Chanel.
While in places the depth of detail borders on the exhausting and unnecessary, Chaney has clearly done her research, and there are insights aplenty into how attuned Gabrielle was to her changing times, and the impact and influence of her creations.
For instance, she is credited as the architect of styles now seen as synonymous with the 1920s. At the time, ‘la garçonne’ (better known now as the flapper) was a bold shift in identity for women previously only assigned decorative or domestic roles:
“Attractive, self-assured, often aggressive, she was independent and out for adventure. Always on the move, she travelled unescorted and succeeded in some newly-invented career. Slicking down her short hair, she smoked, wore trousers and even men’s suits.”
But while the ‘visual language of emancipation’ communicated in Chanel’s collections was at first only a superficial change of attire for the women who wore them, Gabrielle continually subverted societal codes and expectations.
Through two world wars, The Great Depression, decades of addiction to morphine and a changing cultural and industrial landscape, Gabrielle weathered a long list of storms, and Chanel: An Intimate Life chronicles them all in meticulous detail.
Chaney documents Chanel’s love affairs with numerous notorious men famed for their art or social standing, including the Ballets Russes’ Stravinsky and Salvador Dali (Cecile Goudreau, the sharp-tongued, sophisticated character in his roman-a-clef Hidden Faces is apparently based on her) to Dmitri Pavlovich, Bend’Or (Duke of Westminster and original owner of the Cutty Sark), Winston Churchill and the German officer she courted during the German occupation of Paris.
Gabrielle’s lesbian relationships are also documented. Although secondary to her hetero entanglements, they show our heroine’s blasé stance on gender, love and sex:
“Bedding each other – or another woman, for that matter – was not something that would have concerned them in the least. They were libertarians who had lived through an era that was increasingly open to sexual experiment… With time, despite loving and wanting to be loved by men, it seems that Gabrielle turned more often to her own sex for exhilaration and consolation.”
The ending seems both rushed and reluctant; while Karl Lagerfeld’s contribution to the Chanel couture house after Gabrielle’s death is undeniable, it could have been an entire book of its own, and An Intimate Life might have been better without the hasty summary of his involvement.
Another uncomfortable element was the stories of Gabrielle’s behaviour at the end of her life. The anecdotes about her designing in her sleep by cutting up curtains, bedspreads and towels are an insight into her determination to keep on working until the bitter end.
But the tales of her sleepwalking naked through the hotel corridors and propositioning elevator attendants until, adamant about avoiding further indiscretions, she instructed her staff to tie her to her bed each night were unnerving, and perhaps an undignified portrait to leave readers who idolised her with.
Recommended for: Couture queens and fashion fanatics wanting an all-encompassing insight into the life, loves and legacy of one of the most important and enduring architects of women’s style.
Other recommended reading: Chanel: The Vocabulary of Style is another beautiful coffee table book, being published next month by Thames & Hudson. Compiled by Jérôme Gautier, it includes archive photography from the 1920s onwards, set alongside shots from more contemporary collections.
Want more insight into the stories behind the Chanel signature symbols and motifs? Then investigate Chanel: Collections and Creations by Danièle Bott.