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Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garelick

Book Review:

A riveting and engaging biography of one of the 20th century’s preeminent fashion icons, Rhonda K. Garelick brings us the biography of Coco Chanel, a rags-to-riches story about one of the most carefully contrived personas ever.

Born into the lowest class, with few to no options for climbing the social ladder, her image reworking started very young. Her struggles for legitimacy, her discounting or paying off relatives who may discount her new ‘background’ and her rather prickly personality all would have failed with someone less talented and skilled.  But the young Gabrielle, soon to blossom as Coco Chanel, would use her single-minded determination and her eye for the avant garde style that would become the hallmark of her clothing designs, she was soon the toast of the young and fashionable Parisiennes, then later became a name to covet and aspire to.

From her drastic rewriting of her own history, through her many lovers in search of a marriage to a titled man, Chanel was completely loyal to two things: herself and her designs.  An anti-semite, she was in legion with the Nazi philosophy, even involving herself with an SS officer as part of a clandestine ‘surrender and capitulate’ meeting with Churchill and the Britons.

Dictatorial and wholly unsympathetic to any concerns but those in line with her often changeable personal interests, her only true ‘friend’ was Boy Capel. A fan of her millinery creations and supporter of her talents when hats were all she made, Capel was the one person that clearly saw the human side, if not really knowing her story.  I cannot say that I found a woman who was particularly likable, even if I could admire her determination: but I only could find myself asking if she ever truly found happiness.

Responsible for the boyish, tailored silhouettes best suited to the young and slender women, she was the ‘starting point’ of youth-obsession when her brand exploded.  Most every ‘staple’ in a woman’s closet owes a nod of thanks to her: from the simple little black dress to pleated skirts, to jersey knits for daywear and even a bathing suit that doesn’t cover from head to toe all emerged from her salon and dressed the fashionable and sleek.

Integrating the biography being certain to provide background information that refreshes reader’s memories for the history of the day, Garelik has brought together information to present a complete picture: person, time, place and influence, allowing us to meet a more complete Chanel, not just the façade she put forth or the clothing we covet.

Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garelick

Title: Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History
Author: Rhonda K. Garelick
Genre: Biography / Memoir
Published by: Random House
Format:eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 608
Audio Length: 16 Hours: 42 minutes
Rated: four-stars
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About the Book:

Certain lives are at once so exceptional, and yet so in step with their historical moments, that they illuminate cultural forces far beyond the scope of a single person. Such is the case with Coco Chanel, whose life offers one of the most fascinating tales of the twentieth century—throwing into dramatic relief an era of war, fashion, ardent nationalism, and earth-shaking change—here brilliantly treated, for the first time, with wide-ranging and incisive historical scrutiny.

Coco Chanel transformed forever the way women dressed. Her influence remains so pervasive that to this day we can see her afterimage a dozen times while just walking down a single street: in all the little black dresses, flat shoes, costume jewelry, cardigan sweaters, and tortoiseshell eyeglasses on women of every age and background. A bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume is sold every three seconds. Arguably, no other individual has had a deeper impact on the visual aesthetic of the world. But how did a poor orphan become a global icon of both luxury and everyday style? How did she develop such vast, undying influence? And what does our ongoing love of all things Chanel tell us about ourselves? These are the mysteries that Rhonda K. Garelick unravels in Mademoiselle.

Raised in rural poverty and orphaned early, the young Chanel supported herself as best she could. Then, as an uneducated nineteen-year-old café singer, she attracted the attention of a wealthy and powerful admirer and parlayed his support into her own hat design business. For the rest of Chanel’s life, the professional, personal, and political were interwoven; her lovers included diplomat Boy Capel; composer Igor Stravinsky; Romanov heir Grand Duke Dmitri; Hugh Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster; poet Pierre Reverdy; a Nazi officer; and several women as well. For all that, she was profoundly alone, her romantic life relentlessly plagued by abandonment and tragedy.

Chanel’s ambitions and accomplishments were unparalleled. Her hat shop evolved into a clothing empire. She became a noted theatrical and film costume designer, collaborating with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Luchino Visconti. The genius of Coco Chanel, Garelick shows, lay in the way she absorbed the zeitgeist, reflecting it back to the world in her designs and in what Garelick calls “wearable personality”—the irresistible and contagious style infused with both world history and Chanel’s nearly unbelievable life saga. By age forty, Chanel had become a multimillionaire and a household name, and her Chanel Corporation is still the highest-earning privately owned luxury goods manufacturer in the world.

In Mademoiselle, Garelick delivers the most probing, well-researched, and insightful biography to date on this seemingly familiar but endlessly surprising figure—a work that is truly both a heady intellectual study and a literary page-turner.

A copy of this title was provided via Publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.

About Rhonda K. Garelick

RHONDA GARELICK writes on fashion, performance, art, and cultural politics. Her books include: Rising Star; Electric Salome: Loie Fuller's Performance of Modernism; and, as co-editor, Fabulous Harlequin: ORLAN and the Patchwork Self. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, New York Newsday, International Herald Tribune, and Sydney Morning Herald, as well as in numerous journals and museum catalogs in the United States and Europe. She is a Guggenheim fellow and has also received awards from the Getty Research Institute, the Dedalus Foundation, the American Association of University Women, the Whiting Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Garelick received her B.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and French from Yale University.

 

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