Chanel: A Woman of Her Own

by Axel Madsen

Review by Cathleen Myers

It’s not easy to construct a biography of a compulsive liar, especially when your subject is a highly creative liar who told a different set of lies to each biographer and eventually came to believe some of her own fantasies.

According to Axel Madsen’s well-documented biography, most of the "accepted" story about Gabrielle ("Coco") Chanel’s romantic early life is pure fantasy. She didn’t learn dressmaking from sewing samplers for her strict "aunts" or from "taking courses in design;" but from the nuns at the orphanage where she was raised after her mother’s death and from an ordinary apprenticeship at a provincial dressmaker’s. Her first hat shop was started on money from her first protector, Etienne Balsan, not from her first love the polo-playing Englishman "Boy" Capell. Her father was not a respectable horse trader but an itinerant market fair trader who abandoned her; and she was illegitimate, a disgrace she sought to hide all her life.

Madsen’s new biography is an eminently readable celebration of Chanel’s genius as both a couturier and as a self-made business woman who refused the easy life of a kept woman to start her own business, rise to the top of a male-dominated profession and help transform women’s fashion from the opulent Edwardian style to the practical, natural, "modern" look most of us wear today (to work, at least). The author’s style is lively and novelistic and he does have a good knowledge of the fashion industry, though he gives Coco credit for innovations that were not her own (The "feminization of masculine fashion" had been going on in England before Coco’s birth). But Madsen dishes so well about the deadly world of Haute Couture that his lavishly illustrated book is a must for anyone interested in the history of fashion and costume.

Historian’s warning: Madsen’s main weakness is a lack of understanding of the class structure of Chanel’s world (as his misuse of British titles makes clear). A true American, Madsen wonders why Coco fought so hard to conceal her "roots." Since her true rags-to-riches story is so remarkable, why pretend to have risen from the lower middle class? But those of us who understand 19th century social history understand Chanel’s motives. Nor does Madsen seem to understand the social cachet that an English duke carries even today - which explains Chanel’s desire to marry the eccentric Duke of Westminster, her ruthless erasure of her past, and Westminster’s ultimate refusal to marry her. He was desperate for a male heir and, judging from Debrett’s, preferred well-born brides.

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