One of Coco Chanel’s most famous quotes “I didn’t create fashion, I am fashion.” is certainly not a stretch of the truth. Coco, unlike many of her rivals, felt that fashion belongs in the streets and if people were not copying her look, than it wasn’t really fashion. This outspoken and rather prickly designer created the famous Chanel jacket, little black dress, and promoted the wearing of pearls, both real and fake. Though she dominated the fashion world for many years, her personal life leaves you scratching your head.
I recently finished reading Axel Madsen’s biography entitled “Chanel, a Woman of Her Own.” I did a little research before I read this book and I learned that Chanel was not known for her honesty, especially when it came to her personal life. Researchers often found it difficult to pin down accurate information. Knowing this, I predetermined before reading this book that the author may not have all the information either. The sources that Axel Madsen uses seem appropriate since he interviewed her lawyers, friends, and other fashion designers. He also pulled information from early biographies on Chanel.
“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.” – Coco Chanel
The first sentence states, “She made up things.” (1) I think the author stated this right off the bat to inform us of the difficulty in piecing together Coco Chanel’s life. Though we can’t be 100% sure on the life of Chanel, the author used specific sources and acknowledged that Chanel “made up things”, giving us a clue that the author at least tried to share the facts. This also could be why the author spent more time on the personal life of her lovers and friends and had many chapters devoted to individuals that affected Chanel’s life.
Though some of her acquaintances made for an interesting read, a majority of them were a little boring and I am not ashamed to say that I skipped a few pages. Madsen spends a lot of time discussing the history of World War I and II, and though these events did affect Chanel greatly, I thought he used many of these events as “fillers” for the book. What I didn’t find in the bibliography were sources on the history of the wars. If he was going to spend so much time on them, he needed to include them in his main sources. This led me to believe that the information he put, though true as far as I know, was simply a way to plump up the book.
Despite the ‘plumping up’ of the book, the picture you receive of Chanel is of a woman that was fiercely independent, a woman that wanted to control what others thought of her. Having been abandoned by her father after her mother’s death, she was taken to an orphanage run by nuns and never saw her father again. Once she left the orphanage, and after a failed attempt at a career in show business, Chanel become the mistress of a very wealthy man who helped financially support her new franchise and helped create the first Chanel store.
“Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.” – Coco Chanel
Coco Chanel started off in the late Victorian period creating hats for women and costumes for parties. She was known for wearing pants and men’s shirts since she found them to be more comfortable for riding horses, which was her favorite pastime. Her no nonsense style was apparent, even though she was nothing more than a prostitute and had very little foot hold in the high society of France. However, Chanel was a very cunning and clever woman and saw her opportunity to make money by creating clothes for the upper class women.
What I enjoyed reading most was the inside look into Coco Chanel’s business sense. She advertised her fashions by giving clothes away to influential society women, by giving small samples of her perfume (Chanel 5°) away, and creating a system of production in her clothing stores. No matter what you may think of her personal life, you can clearly see how she had a good grasp on her business and that she would not allow others to crush her. You can also see the love and dedication she had in creating her fashion. She used live models to design the clothes and never once drew a sketch first.
What really takes you for a spin is reading about her personal life. She supported her siblings then disowned them; she had a number of lovers, but still ending up being a lonely old lady. If any of this information is true, she lived a very drama-filled life. How Coco Chanel treated her workers and how she handled the situation when they went on strike brought to life a woman who ran her stores with an iron fist and a disregard for those who worked beneath her.
“Fashion has become a joke. The designers have forgotten that there are women inside the dresses. Most women dress for men and want to be admired. But they must also be able to move, to get into a car without bursting their seams! Clothes must have a natural shape.”
- Coco Chanel
Coco Chanel’s death bed words really captured the true gritty sprit of this woman: “You see, this is how you die.” (2) Even while dying, Coco wanted to die her way. The last chapter is devoted to how her fortune was spilt up and who took the reins of the Chanel business. Though I admire her fashion sense, her incredible business ferocity, and her independence, she appeared to be a very snobbish woman and a horrible boss.
Axel Madsen does very well in trying to show what he believes is the true Coco Chanel. However, the book could have been thinned by taking out many unnecessary chapters on people or events that really deserved only a few paragraphs. Still, though, there were many chapters that I found interesting and I enjoyed learning about this commanding woman.
Coco Chanel was the first woman to create fashions for women. She was the first woman to put France on the map with her sensible and stylish clothes. Even today her influence is found in what women wear to work and the rule of owning that little black dress is all thanks to Coco Chanel.
“How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone.” – Coco Chanel
(1) Madsen, Axel. Chanel A Woman of Her Own. New York: Henry Holt And Company, 1990. (Page 3)
(2) Madsen, Axel. Chanel A Woman of Her Own. New York: Henry Holt And Company, 1990. (Page 329)
Written By: Kristy Trowbridge