Currently Reading – Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History

I think I’d made the comment here that one thing the world does not need is another book about Coco Chanel.  Between 2009 and 2012, at least twelve books on Chanel’s life were published.  What more was there to say?

As it happens, I was wrong.  The world does need Mademoiselle:Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History , a book that at over 600 pages (including notes and references) attempts to set the story of Chanel’s life straight, and to place it and her work into the historical framework of the Twentieth Century.  It was a huge task, especially considering the myths surrounding the woman and her namesake business.

Through meticulous research and the locating of some key new resources such as the diaries and private papers of some of Chanel’s lovers, Rhonda Garelick has painted the most authentic portrait of Chanel to date. It isn’t as though there is a lot of new material, because there is not.  What makes this book so good is that Garelick cuts to the heart of the many conflicting stories about Chanel, and through her research comes up with the most plausible versions.  To add to the narrative, she also relates the alternate versions when there is any question as to the truth.

Most people writing about Chanel point out how she appropriated the clothing of her lovers.  What Garelick adds to this is how she also  absorbed and reflected their ideological and political views as well. Unfortunately, Chanel seemed to be attracted to men who were openly anti-semitic and who leaned toward fascism.

With the exception of Hal Vaughan’s Sleeping with the Enemy, most books about Chanel have reduced her life during the years between 1939 and 1945 to that of an aging romantic woman becoming infatuated with a younger German army officer.  With Mademoiselle, there is no white-washing of history.  Drawing on the research of Hal Vaughan, Garelick clearly presents the truth that Chanel was a spy for Germany.  There is also proof that she exposed an acquaintance as being Jewish, and that she went into at least one apartment that had been abandoned by its fleeing Jewish occupant and helped herself to art and antiques.

Garelick points out in her introduction that Chanel has become a popular first name for baby girls.  I’ve got to assume that the parents of these babies know nothing about Chanel the woman. As much as we might acknowledge her talent, Chanel was not a nice person, and she certainly would not be a good role model for your kid.

It also brings up the disturbing question of how much are we willing to overlook in the admiration of Chanel’s design talent and in the pursuit of style. Should we be like the Jewish Wertheimer family who continued to do business with Chanel even though she tried to “aryanize” their business during WWII, and who continue to protect her image even today?

Almost 45% of the book consists of end notes and the bibliography.  Unfortunately I was reading a advance reviewer’s copy on my e-reader and the notes were not linked.  I finally gave up tying to flip back and forth and read the notes at the end of each chapter.  They added a lot to the narrative.

My thanks to NetGalley and Random House.


Filed under Currently Reading, Designers

11 responses to “Currently Reading – Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History

  1. Christo

    Like yourself, I’ve read many Chanel biographies and often wondered if there’s really anything else left to say about her. I’ll have to check this book out. Of course the Wertheimers want to protect Chanel’s image, they’re making millions each year from sales of perfume, clothing and accessories. It’s interesting to note that Chanel (the brand) has whitewashed other parts of its history too, as they never mention the designers who worked at the house between 1971 and 1983 (such as Philippe Guibourge, who originated Chanel’s pret-a-porter line).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. it is all too much -at the “end of the day’ it becomes very clear that everyone loves to get into the “act”…-and forget the subject matter!? Proving points!? -jumping over each others backs for the spotlight!….like it/her-or not she was just a human being living in a very horribly disturbing and confusing time! Were any of these “writers ” there??? It is as ubsurd as one more Jackie Kennedy look a like made for tv movie! no matter what – Chanel survived -she created an empire(like it/her or not)!!!In a period where women were socially and abused-she survived-and no matter how pretty or not that it was…WHY NOT remember the talent? If you were ever lucky enoughto have seen her collections in Paris(and you were professionally involved in the Fashion Buainess) NONE of the “prattle” would matter!!! One felt honoured to be there ! Fashion is the subject-her oersonal life is / was really her “business” as wel?


    • Of course the talent is impossible to forget, but I’m afraid that I also can’t ignore her character and the actions that resulted. It’s sort of like a football player who beats his dog or fiancee. The talent is there, but it sure makes it hard to watch.


  3. Maria Cate

    Thank you for continuing to bring the truth about Chanel’s despicable actions to the forefront of the discussion about her. In addition to her wartime collaboration with the Nazis as a spy, and profiteering from the Holocaust–she was a long-time anti-semite–she treated her workers abysmally:
    “Although Chanel’s business may have suffered during the Depression…her workforce increased to around four thousand employees by 1935. Chanel’s saleswomen as well as her seamstresses went on strike in June 1936 to protest their poor wages and working conditions. In April 1936 the French people voted in a left-wing coalition government headed by Leon Blum, which was followed by a number of strikes including the workers at Chanel. Chanel refused to implement the Matignon Agreement, which introduced wage increases of 7 to 15 percent, the right to collective bargaining and unionize, a 40-hour week and a 2-week paid annual holiday. Instead she fired 300 women who refused to leave the building and only later, in order to produce her next collection, agreed to introduce a workers co-operative on the understanding that she managed it (Madsen, p. 216).
    For me, there are people whose behavior is so beyond the pale I just can’t enjoy their work anymore–Woody Allen is another case in point.
    Anyway, this is also by way of being my first comment on your blog which I’ve been reading faithfully ever since I found it 6 months ago. It always brightens my day. You’re a treasure Lizzie!


    • Maria Cate, thanks for finally coming out of the shadows! I’m glad you enjoy my blog.

      Garelick and Vaughan both make the point that Chanel’s real reason for closing her atelier in 1939 was to retaliate for the worker’s strike. She put several thousand out of work.

      I like your example of Woody Allen.


  4. I also find it impossible to think about Chanel without considering her antisemitism, pro-Nazi ideology, and poor labor practices. But there is no avoiding her influence in the world of fashion. Thanks for this update. Sounds like she was an even nastier person than I thought.


    • I’m really puzzled at how the company continues to push Chanel the woman through all the silly movies they’ve put out. You would think they would jusy focus on the symbols of the company, which they do, but honestly, I’d try to bury her deep in the past.

      It also amazes me the way Galliano was swiftly put out of the limelight for his antisemitism, and Chanel’s actions were just so much worse.


      • Martina

        Chanel vs. Galliano:

        (1) Chanel lucked out by not living in a time of the 24-hour news cycle, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube unlike Galliano.

        (2) Possibly Chanel can thank old-fashioned sexism for trivializing her conduct because she was a woman.

        (3) I wonder if there wasn’t a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in France at the time (and even going forward) on the part of politicians and whatever press they controlled. For all the courage some of the French showed in resisting the Nazis, quite a number of socially and politically prominent French citizens did as Chanel did and collaborated with the them to protect themselves and their property. Open up about Chanel’s role in WWII and their own behavior could be called into question as well.


        • I think number 3 is probably the source of the truth. After the war ended, Chanel was called in for questioning, but it is rumored that some high-powered friend, perhaps Winston Churchill, got her off the hook. She then quickly and quietly moved to Switzerland where she remained until 1953. By that time many people in France were eager to move on past the ugliness of behavior under the Nazis. Many had a lot to forget.


  5. Jonathan Walford

    Okay, you convinced me, I will buy and read it and add it to the Chanel shelf… Now here is your next challenge, should you wish to accept it: Can you find a book about Dior with anything new in it? I hope not because the Dior shelf is even more loaded than the Chanel shelf.


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