The story of Coco Chanel has been told in many, many books over many many years — and all biographers have trouble figuring out what was true and what she made up. It has been said that she changed her past to suit her mood. Here, two authors from different backgrounds attempt to provide new perspectives:
by Linda Simon (October 1, Critical Lives – Reaktion Books)
This slim, lightly illustrated (black and white only) is a new contribution to Reaktion books “Critical Lives” series. According to the publisher, in this version of Chanel’s life “Linda Simon here teases apart the myth that Chanel and her adoring public collaborated to create, and explores its contradictions.” Kirkus, a publishing industry magazine, interviewed her about the book, and in an amazingly short review The Independent said:
“Too much of this book is devoted to Chanel’s love life, and not enough attention is given to her astonishing talent, although Simon’s assessment of the designer’s legacy – her fashion helped redefine ‘femininity as a sort of adolescent insouciance’ – is nicely put.”
Simon, who is an English professor, has previously written biographies of Alas B. Tolklas and William James – but has little fashion history/studies background. I’ll be very interested to see what other fashion scholars have to say about this retelling.
By Amy de la Haye (October, Thames & Hudson/Victoria & Albert Museum
Alternatively, Amy de la Haye – who has written a number of fashion history text and reference books – has also just come out with a new book: Chanel: Couture and Industry. For those unfamiliar, de la Haye is a curator and dress historian. She has a Senior Research Fellowship at the London College of Fashion (University of the Arts) and from 1991-1998 she was Curator of 20th Century Dress at the V&A.
Of the two books, this is the one to get. Heavily illustrated, with sidebars and call-outs, it is still slim and concise – explaining key stages of Chanel’s career (and continuing briefly into the Lagerfeld years) and the issues she dealt with (in a textbook style-layout ideal for students). Of particular note are the introductory chapter “Chanel: Subject and Media” and the call-out section “1939-53: War and the Aftermath.”
Chanel: Couture and Industry includes a helpful chronology, as well as highlights of Chanel ensembles included in the Victorian & Albert Museum. Copious full-color photographs, illustrations, art depicting the clothing she designed provide excellent evidence of her design prowess. It is far from dry reading, and includes fascinating tid-bits, discussions of her fashion designs, in addition to her style and her life.
Here’s a mix of vintage and more contemporary Chanel fashions (and Chanel herself) to wet your appetite: