Thursday, October 17, 2019

Review: Coco Chanel by Lisa Chaney

I am only ever in fashionable by accident. I quite appreciated the trend for grey hair recently and was tickled when some women (models? actresses? famous for some reason anyway) were photographed carrying books that the media dubbed the new fashion accessory. Both of these looks I can accomplish without the thought and effort that goes into actually being on trend. But if thought and effort is required, well, I can be found in pajamas or jeans and sweatshirts/t-shirts. I am nothing if not the epitome of unfashionable. So it is perhaps odd that I'd choose to read a biography of Coco Chanel. In fairness, it was a book club choice but in a perfect world, I would also like to be able to pull off that certain panache that style imparts. Lisa Chaney's biography, Coco Chanel, certainly discusses Chanel's impact on and belief about the guiding tenets of fashion but it is less about her public success and her designs and more about the little bit of her private life that can be uncovered and verified.

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was famous for obscuring the truth about her life, contradicting things she'd already claimed, and leaving little written documentation of her life for biographers to work with. Chaney had access to newly discovered documents so she had more than usual to go on but her factual information was still quite limited and she fleshed out her biography with conjecture and speculation. Because of the dearth of actual documented information on Chanel, there's a lot of detail about the historical times and the people around Chanel, about whom more is known. These extensive details become long diversions from the topic and life of our ostensible subject. Often there are long lists of the names of potentially prominent people who are not generally remembered by history and never appear again in the book. They might be named in order to show Chanel's influence and evolving depth of her inner circle but as they are unknowns, they add nothing to the book. And certainly Chanel knew, befriended, dressed, otherwise worked with, or had an affair with so many very famous people that the other names were just tedious to read. Many of the chapters were quite repetitious both in descriptions of certain people (physically and in terms of personality) and in ideas.

When focusing on Chanel herself, as the reader expects in a biography, Chaney appears to be writing something of a hagiography. In writing of anything remotely negative, she then justifies Chanel's choices in some way. And she is almost entirely uncritical about the most controversial bits of Chanel's life, ignoring or making only glancing mentions of things like her drug addiction and her early abortion. As for Chanel's well known affair with a Nazi officer during (and after!!) WWII and possible collaboration, Chaney only skims the surface, suggesting that Chanel didn't know the depths of his position despite all the obvious evidence pointing to his importance. Either Chanel was an incredibly smart and savvy woman, as presented prior to this instance, or she is the most naive and, frankly, unobservant woman ever. Impossibly, Chaney chooses both to make Chanel look as good as possible in all cases, including this affair.

There are odd authorial intrusions into the text to tell the reader that she (Chaney) was the first to see and use certain sources like recently discovered diaries and letters. Even with these new sources, Chanel's secrets don't seem to have been uncovered and I'm not entirely certain they would really be all that interesting if they were uncovered given the portrait we're presented with here. I enjoy history and learning how actual individual people either fit into their times or challenged and pushed them but this biography did not end up succeeding in this for me. It was long and unfocused so it turned out to be a rather dull read unfortunately.

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