Monday, September 1, 2014

The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World's Most Elegant Woman

Portrait of Mademoiselle Chanel by Douglas Kirkland Circa 1960
I don't understand how a woman can leave the house without fixing herself up a little - if only out of politeness. And then, you never know, maybe that's the day she has a date with destiny. And it's best to be as pretty as possible for destiny. ~ Coco Chanel
Karen Karbo's The Gospel According to Coco Chanel is a lighthearted, highly entertaining biography of the enigmatic French fashion designer, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel. Mademoiselle Chanel's ideas about style superseded fashion itself to become the basis for modern good taste and that indefinable commodity known as class. It must be observed that throughout history some of the most influential taste-makers were not aristocratic ladies but rather women (and men) from the lowest rungs of society, such as Madame du Barry, Rose Bertin, and Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel. While I do not care for the word "gospel" used in such a worldly context. the book is not irreverent but with a playful wisdom explains the impact of Mademoiselle Chanel's ideals upon the world she lived in. Those ideals have value for our world as well, where vulgarity now reigns. While glossing over or skipping some of the more unpleasant and controversial aspects of Chanel's life and career, such as her rumored drug use, her affair with a Nazi, and her possible German collaboration, the book focuses on her positive contributions, such as her introduction of simplicity and comfort in women's clothes. It also deals with the author's quest for an affordable Chanel jacket.

The Gospel According to Coco Chanel makes no pretense of being a complete biography, but rather explores Gabrielle's life in context of her views on success, on style, on surviving heartbreak, and on self-invention. Gabrielle was completely self-invented, telling any number of stories to disguise the reality of her deprived childhood. While she told most people she was an orphan reared by two maiden aunts, in reality she was brought up in a convent school for the poorest of poor children. From the nuns she learned not only sewing but the beauty of both simplicity and practicality. Her own peasant bluntness she turned into elegant use by coining pithy sayings that guided the rich and famous, such as "A woman who doesn't wear perfume has no future" and "Don't spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door." She started with little but made do with what she had, and her resourcefulness led to success.

I do not know if she would have gotten very far without the men in her life, though. Her first wealthy beau, Étienne Balsan, introduced her to high society as well as to the love of her life, Boy Capel. Boy financed her first shop; Chanel later paid him back in full. When he died she lost her greatest love, even though Boy was by no means ever faithful to her. In the 1920's she met the exiled Grand Duke Dmitri, the Tsar's cousin, who influenced her in the use of bead-work and embroidery in the style of Imperial Russia. None of her relationships ended in marriage, which Chanel later regarded as a her life's great sorrow. She had few close friends but many colorful acquaintances. Her generosity was legendary as was her temper. Her decades long struggle with Pierre Wertheimer for control of Chanel No. 5 was as intense as any love affair.

While the book is an amusing read, it is not without depth. There is much to learn from a life with as many ups and downs as Chanel's, about what to do as well as what not to do.  There is a great deal of lore about the wearing of pearls and the importance of maintaining an air of mystery yet Karbo also looks the dark side of Gabrielle's personality and marvels at her lack of happiness in the end.
Coco in 1920
Gabrielle Chanel photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1937

More photos from Vogue.

Architectural Digest recently reported on Coco Chanel's iconic style. To quote:
  • Rock crystal: Limpidly clear or dramatically veined, this luxurious stone showed up everywhere in Chanel’s private world, worked into table lamps to chandeliers to crystal balls, scattering her rooms with sequins of light.
  • Beige is beautiful: The neutral earth tone was the foundation color for Chanel’s interiors, though she spiked and deepened it with black, gold, brown, honey, and cinnabar, a color palette that recalled the fantastical and highly fashionable murals painted by her Spanish artist friend José María Sert. The fashion designer’s famous and much-copied rolled-arm sofa, a feature of the salon of her rue Cambon apartment, is upholstered in beige suede lightly outlined with brass nailheads and accented with blocky gold-leafed legs.
  • Gold, gold, and more gold: The walls of the salon at rue Cambon are stretched with dull gold fabric; gilding coats mirror and picture frames; glamorous gold boxes are displayed on a cocktail table; and a table has a golden base in the form of a sheaf of wheat.
  • Pairs of animals—lions, deer, camels, horses, birds, frogs, antelope—are in abundance at rue Cambon, on tabletops and atop bookshelves, and in many materials: ceramic, stone, and brass.
  • To ward off bad breath, Chanel often tucked a clove under her tongue after meals.
  • The designer’s preferred beverages were Sancerre wine, Stolichnaya vodka, and ice-cold Krug Champagne.
  • Hundreds of handsome leather-bound books fill rue Cambon’s surprisingly humble wood bookshelves, the volumes clad in shades that matched the decor and all glimmering with tooled gold accents.
  • Mirrors, mirrors everywhere: Chanel placed sheets of mirrored glass between the windows of the dining room and the salon and hung framed mirrors—including her beloved flower-bedecked Venetian examples—in niches and above mantels, expanding the spaces ad infinitum. In some spots, mirrors were even hung atop mirrors.
  • Chez Chanel, curtains were straight, perfectly tailored panels of fabric, with no furbelows, flounces, or folderol. Usually white or ivory and sometimes of taffeta.
  • At La Pausa, the seven-bedroom stucco villa she built in the South of France with architect Robert Streitz, Chanel furnished the airy, ivory-white rooms with sober, sexy ruggedness. Sixteenth-century French chairs were upholstered in leather; Spanish tables of the same period hugged walls; paintings from the School of Velázquez hung in the salon; and parched-wood doors, mantels, and panels added to the luxurious yet monastic air.
  • Table settings were strong and simple, honest textures being more important than color and ornament. A period photograph of Chanel presiding over a luncheon at La Pausa shows the naked wood Gothic dining table set with forthright tableware: dead-plain goblets, shapely but unornamented carafes, strong but streamlined silver flatware, and crisp place mats.
  • Chanel’s South of France menus were hearty and countrified. As a friend, Vogue fashion editor Bettina Ballard, once wrote, “The long dining room [at La Pausa] had a buffet at one end with hot Italian pasta, cold English roast beef, French dishes, a little bit of everything.” (Read more.)



Baroque In Babylon said...

I just finished a biography on Chanel and I love this book. I agree with your thoughts that she had many springboards but made much from little. Thanks for posting this!

Mary said...

I, too, thought this a charming little book and admired Chanel's immense drive...if not her means of attainment! There is similar book about Julia Child which is absolutely delightful - I'm so glad authors are gifting us with the skimmed highlights rather than forcing us to wade through every detail when we are looking for a quick read. Short and sweet, yet not superficial.

Good luck and blessings as you continue your career as an author, my friend! I'm looking forward to reading your new book and I'm so happy to see you living your dreams.

We have retired/retired to Nebraska where 15 of our GRANDchildren live. I detest the cold weather, but am drawn to the warmth of my grown children and their little ones. Such a wonderful trade off!

My best to your family xoxo -mary

elena maria vidal said...

Great to hear from you, Mary!