Coco Chanel: why can’t we accept that all our legends are really human?

This morning I read (very excitedly) that a new biography of Mademoiselle Chanel is to be published imminently. I really do mean excitedly – in terms of fashion, I worship at the altar of Chanel. And I do mean Coco Chanel. I almost feel like I shouldn’t use the well-known name ‘Coco’. Instead I think I should use her real name – Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel – or, as the staff at her atelier would say, Mademoiselle Chanel. In fact, for the remainder of this article, I will refer to her as ‘Mademoiselle’: After all, I didn’t know her personally and my respect for her is based on her professional output.

However, apparently I’m in the minority. In fact, most biographies dwell more on the excitement of her personal life. I have to say that I devour gossip (as most of you know) – and I’m not discerning about who it relates to. In fact, my mother-in-law and I have bonded over a mutual addiction to articles in the Daily Mail concerning Prince Andrew and his dubious friendships and financial dealings. I hasten to add that this is a guilty pleasure – we read online and she loves to vote against their opinions in their online surveys. I like to read Liz Jones or articles about kittens.

Getting back to the subject in hand…I read about the biography and actually felt disappointed. The main reason being that this book appears to have generated a lot of publicity on the back of the type of lascivious stories about Mademoiselle that I (and most other people with a working knowledge of anything) have already heard before. And which, to be perfectly honest, are absolutely irrelevant when considering her importance in the history of fashion and the impact her work has had on all of our lives.

I’m not joking when I write that last sentence. At least, I’m serious if you’re a woman – any of my male readers (I hope there are some but I suspect they are a minority) may not be quite as impressed. This is mainly because Chanel ignored the utterly prevalent frivolous and purposefully decorative trends that preceded the 1910s – and only designed and manufactured utilitarian, comfortable clothing for women who were becoming more emancipated.

Of course, the mood of her designs coincided with great social upheaval and her ‘design philosophy’ (excuse the horribly pretentious, woefully overused term but – for once – it actually seems appropriate) was perfect for her customers’ changing lives and roles  She had deep pocketed financial backers and strong moral support as well – any business woman’s dream team. However, her vision can’t be underestimated: she was the only fashion designer to adapt her output to the new way of life that the First World War inflicted upon society across Europe. And, because at that time, there was no such thing as a ‘fashion designer’ (only dress makers – which explains why it took, literally, decades for shapes and trends to change) she could keep prices low. The only reason that ‘real people’ didn’t buy was because there was no high street back then. Or magazines to give her publicity.

Despite those things, her influence spread – all manufacturers started to give women clothes they could walk and work in. Her use of new fabrics provoked growth in some areas of the textile industry – and, subsequently, to the agricultural economy as well.

What she gave to us, ladies, is even more important: Chanel’s output was, contrary to present-day appearances, not the kind of ‘ladies who lunch’ wear that Karl Lagerfeld churns out in her name. Instead, she designed clothes in (what were then) revolutionary fabrics – like wool, silk and cotton jersey. She first wore, and then produced, trousers and knitwear that were inspired by menswear – but cut for women. She popularised costume jewellery and she made a healthy tan and appearance acceptable. Basically, she gave us the modern work uniform: if you wear trousers for work, if you choose tops in jersey because you hate ironing, if you buy statement jewellery that you don’t feel guilty about losing or ruining, if you like ballet flats, if you fake tan regularly or if you use the ‘natural look’ when you apply your make-up, then you’re riding on her tails. Inadvertently, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re above the fashion conspiracy – just thank your stars you hitched your wagon to the right horse.

What I suppose annoys me about the fuss caused by the new book (click here for the entire article) is that it entirely dwells on the details of Mademoiselle Chanel’s private life. It doesn’t seem to offer any new insights (most people already know about the affairs – with men and women, the drugs, the Nazis, the parties, the self made biography etc) except for the source material. It just seems a shame that no effort was spent on exploring what her real legacy was.

After all, none of us is perfect – we’ve all got pasts. It’s just that most of us will never have as much impact on other people’s lives as she did. Admittedly, she didn’t invent a cure for cancer. What she did do was prove that fashion doesn’t have to be frivolous – but that it can have a lasting effect on the lives of women.

Those women are real women – not the little, bird-like freaks who can afford Chanel couture now, but the ones who work in offices, who run for buses, who pay for their own clothes, who need a tough wardrobe that goes the distance but who like to treat themselves to the occasional LBD that always looks smart and is easy to accessorise. In short, all of us.    

When we refer to a historical figure as ‘a legend’, we should remember that the term was invented to describe mythological figures – not real people. We can’t expect any human to be infallible. If they were then their work would be lessened. Mademoiselle Chanel struggled to influence the field she worked in – she wasn’t described in Greek literature or Scandinavian poetry. In short, like everyone else, she lived a life. A full life – with ups and downs. The ups are all the things that have reaching effects. The downs pretty much provide the entire content of every biography written. I, for one, want to know about the good times as well as the bad. A little more balance is required.

In this instance, I’d go for a more academic account of her life – it’ll prove much more entertaining. After all, there are only so many ‘tell all’ biographies any of us can easily digest. Especially when they’re all the same. Come on, lazy writers, try something new – the whole truth.


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