An Intimate Life
By Lisa Chaney
Viking. 464 pp $27.95
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Reviewed by Elizabeth Wellington
Women's wardrobes would be oh-so-cumbersome, not to mention boring, without the contributions of the great Parisian designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel.
Chanel gave us the little black dress, gaudy layers of pearls, and the fitted tweed suit. Most important, she popularized predecessor Paul Poiret's early-1900s frocks that featured straighter silhouettes and shorter hemlines. These boyish pieces ultimately helped women do away with the corset.
That's common fashionista knowledge.
But there's much more that hasn't been common knowledge about the bobbed, early-20th-century businesswoman, and it should make for a book chock-full of scandals and affairs. Hence, British author Lisa Chaney's 400-plus-page tome, Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life.
In the book, Chaney pieces together lost letters and records, which the designer spent most of her life trying to hide, that retell her maudlin story and give substance to a lot of rumors about Chanel. But, while the story is juicy chick lit, the book is not. What this fact-heavy prose lacks is spice.
It takes a while, but we get Chaney's point: Chanel was a style innovator, but it wasn't a love of clothing that made this woman tick. It was fear. Fear that she'd lose control or, worse, the independence she so fiercely fought for.
Chanel was born in 1883, the illegitimate child of an unemployed French playboy and a severely depressed mother, and lost her parents when she was 12. She grew up in an orphanage run by nuns. You can imagine how restricted her fashion choices were.
Chanel's life wasn't easy, and at times, it was downright degrading. She spent her young adult life as a courtesan, an upscale prostitute. She entered high society as one of two mistresses of her first financial backer, socialite and horseman Etienne Balsan, whom she eventually left for an even richer Englishman, Arthur "Boy" Capel, after cheating on Balsan with Capel.
These stories are more scandalous than those on Real Housewives.
The forbidden liaisons helped Chanel establish herself early on as a high-society rule-breaker. Her transition from milliner - her first business was a hat shop - to designer helped her express revolutionary thoughts when it came to women.
Chanel was among the first upper-class women to ride horses for recreation and to play sports like polo, so her menswear-inspired clothing - featuring pockets and baggy fits - was as much a necessity as a fashion statement.
Chaney opens the book with Chanel walking through the Tuileries with Capel. She informs Capel, who is bankrolling her business, that she doesn't need his help anymore. His response: "I thought I was giving you a plaything. What I gave you was your freedom."
Soon after, Capel would leave her.
That was just one of Chanel's numerous affairs followed by a debilitating broken heart. Men would cheat on their wives with her, then leave both her and the wife to marry somebody else. Subsequent dalliances included affairs with composer Igor Stravinsky, artist Pablo Picasso, and a German soldier during the Nazi occupation of France. Chaney raises the possibility of lesbian affairs, too.
Even with her astuteness, Chanel made some bad business decisions and was swindled out of the bulk of her profit from her iconic scent, Chanel No. 5. Despite her grand staircases and travels around the world with the most revered artists, she never managed to find happiness.
By the book's end, Chanel has become a lonely and bitter woman who spends much of her time bashing fashion, especially the miniskirt. She said she found the mini vulgar and inappropriate, seemingly forgetting how she herself had popularized a shorter hemline in the early 20th century that freed women from Victorian prudery.
Through two World Wars, Chanel survived it all. That's because, as Chaney puts it so well, Chanel owned the zeitgeist.
"The reason she is so often credited with initiating something, such as chopping off her hair or introducing short skirts, is because she had become the quintessence of high fashion," Chaney writes. "She knew just when to make the change, and what she did was noticed and emulated."
It's unfortunate that Chanel's fashion genius came at such a daunting price. The designer, who died in 1971, at 88, remains even now a dominating force in women's fashion. But her personal life was far from triumphant.