Chanel: A Woman of her Own by Axel Madsen

28 Jul
Chanel by Richard Avedon                                                  (Coco Chanel by Richard Avedon)
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I must have read it 4 or 5 times now, Chanel: A Woman of her Own by Axel Madsen and like to recommend it as a very good read.

   “I didn’t create fashion, I am fashion.”   

Coco Chanel’s genius for fashion may have been distilled in simplicity, but her life was an extravaganza. A brilliant array of luminaries fell under her spell – Picasso, Churchill, Cocteau; lovers included the Grand Duke Dmitri; the English roué, Boy Capel; a French poet; a German spy and the Duke of Westminster, who offered to leave his wife for her permanently, if she would only bear him an heir. Paradoxically, though she might have been regarded in some lights as a pioneering feminist – sacrificing marriage to a revolutionary career in couture – Chanel was utterly baffled by the idea of women’s politics. Educated women? ‘A woman’s education consists of two lessons: never leave the house without stockings, never go out without a hat.’ Chanel’s rise from penniless orphan to millionaire designer – ‘inventing’ sportswear, the little black dress and No. 5 – makes compelling reading, not least because she was inclined to design her own life as deftly as she did her fashions. Axel Madsen negotiates Chanel’s smoke screens with skill, bringing this tantalizing woman to life in all her alluring complexity.

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bookcover

PEERS BOOK REVIEWS

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.
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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.
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Madsen’s 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.
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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 .

Coco Chanel’s life in photographs & quotes

coco-chanel_6059_1-e1323537635564 Coco Chanel at the age of 23

. coco & etienne balsan Coco & Etienne Balsan

.Chanel

When Coco Chanel lived with Etienne Balsan at Royallieu, she started wearing men’s clothes
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Coco & BoyCoco Chanel & Boy Capel, 1912
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coco chanel & adrienneCoco & Adrienne in 1913, in front of Coco’s first boutique in Deauville
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“Hard  times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity.”

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Coco & the duke of WestminsterCoco & Bendor, the Duke of Westminster, at the Grand National racetrack

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Coco
Coco & Winston Churchill
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coco
Coco & Winston Churchill
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Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel and Serge Lifar (The principal dancer of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes during its final years in the late 1920's) -Coco & Serge Lifar (The principal dancer of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes during its final years in the late 1920’s)
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COCOCoco photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1937
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Coco
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“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.”

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Coco & Salvador DalíCoco & Salvador Dalí
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CocoCoco Chanel at 50 by George Hoyningen-Huene
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coco-chanel.

“Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”

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Coco

Coco working on het beloved jewelry

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coco

coco-chanel-photo-douglas-kirkland

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“Fashion has become a joke. The designers have forgotten that there are women inside the dresses. Most women dress for men and want to be admired. But they must also be able to move, to get into a car without bursting their seams! Clothes must have a natural shape.”

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Coco Chanel
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