Sunday, September 28, 2014

Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History

Title:  Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History
Author:  Rhonda K. Garelick
Publication Information:  Random House. 2014. 608 pages.
ISBN:  1400069521 / 978-1400069521

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "Coco saw the body as a moving, breathing, sexually alive entity, which needed to be dressed as such. Chanel was doing more than inventing a new way of dressing; she was inventing a new way of being."

Coco Chanel spent her childhood in an orphanage, and apparently, spent the rest of her life trying to reinvent herself beyond that beginning. She was ashamed and sought to hide it by constantly creating a new story for herself and to seek relationships that would provide her a route to a society that seemed beyond her reach.

Much of the book is organized around relationships Coco Chanel had with different men in her life:
  • Etiennne Balsan, the scion of a wealthy industrialist family
  • Arthur "Boy" Capel, an English polo player
  • Grand Duke Dimitri, one of the Romanovs to escape Russia
  • Pierre Reverdy, a French poet
  • Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster

Some of these affairs lasted for years. Several of the men supported her business ventures and applauded her successes. Yet, none married her, and none gave her entree into the high society, which appeared closed to her because of her background. "Essentially, Chanel would marry her only faithful partner:  work."

This is the first book I have read about Coco Chanel or the history of the Chanel brand. I read it expecting to learn about how Coco Chanel and the brand she created became what it is - a symbol of "class" and luxury. I expected to learn about the development of the fashion industry and of the brand in particular.

Unfortunately, this book does not really serve that function. It is a biography of Coco Chanel - but the person and the time she lived in not the businesswoman who created a world-renowned luxury brand. To some extent, the book could have been titled Coco Chanel and Her Men or Coco Chanel, version 1, version 2, version 3, and so on.

The book goes through multiple iterations of the fact that Coco continually attempted to reinvent her past and the story she presented to the world:
  • "Coco confused herself with the female character she had imposed upon all of Paris."
  • "Her life was another commodity, a movie for the world to see, with costumes available for sale." 
  • "Coco preferred to see herself as she had convinced the world to see her:  an icon of belonging and connection on the grandest but least personal scale imaginable."

After the first couple of times, this gets repetitive. It's background information for what she overcame, but to me, it's not the story itself. The relationships in her life had a significant influence on the development of Coco's career; yet, I would think there would be more beyond that - her work, her creativity, her fortitude. That aspect becomes subsumed under the relationships described in the book.

The book also seems to have a somewhat negative tone throughout:
  • "When in a fever of creation, Coco often confused animate and inanimate objects. Her models complained that she routinely stuck her dressmaker pins right through their flesh during fittings, laughing when they yelped."
  • "Chanel's response to the strike revealed her increasing bitterness - how quick she was to anger and how little empathy she permitted herself to feel."
  • "Coco could seem disdainful and snobbish."
  • "She already had a long history of feathering her own nest with whatever opportunity fate offered."
  • "Coco seemed reluctant to acknowledge the effort and gifts of her many employees."

The facts may very well be accurate, but the tone makes me feel like I want to check the facts against a differently written biography. This one feels like it gives more of an opinion on the life of Coco Chanel rather than just the facts of her life. I prefer to be given the facts and allowed to form my own opinion.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.


  1. I am still not sure whether to read this or not. It sounds interesting, but I also like to form my own opinion.

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by. The book was not what I expected, but I still did learn a lot about the woman behind the name. Let me know what you think if you decide to read it. I love discussing books!