Published by William Morrow
Publication date: March 17th 2015
Genres: fashion, Fiction, Historical
When you think of Chanel it is likely as a luxury brand of clothes, accessories, and perfume. I know for me it is because owning a vintage Chanel suit is on my bucket list. Forget seeing the pyramids, I want that boucle jacket with the gold chain sewn into the lining to make sure it hangs straight. It is fascinating, then, to read C.W. Gortner’s novel, Mademoiselle Chanel, about Gabrielle Chanel’s life and to learn that a brand synonymous with opulence was born out of a childhood devoid of any kind of ostentation whether it is emotional or physical. Her mother died when she was twelve and her father left her and her two sisters at an orphanage run by nuns in a small town in France. This gave her the security of enough food to eat, warm clothes to wear, and a place to sleep but it was a cold and austere environment. The greatest gift the nuns gave her was encouragement of her outstanding sewing skills. As soon as she was eighteen she left and after years of living hand to mouth was finally able to pursue the dream that became the house of Chanel.
Mademoiselle Chanel chronicles Chanel’s unwavering belief in her own vision, not just in her professional life but in her personal life as well. What is most fascinating about Chanel, beyond her innate ability to know what women wanted before they even knew it, was her unwavering belief in her own abilities. At a time when a woman wanting to succeed in business was unusual she went even further and refused to consider marriage. She knew what it would mean to her chances of success. Not only was this unusual, it was considered aberrant behavior to not want marriage or children and yet, she strode ahead, ignoring convention and feeling
…exasperated that even as I worked my fingers to the bone to liberate women from our cloth chains, our minds remained as closed as ever to the possibility that we might deserve more than a husband, children, and growing old cooking sausage.
Gortner goes beyond Chanel as a fashion icon and delves into the details of her life and those around her. Despite her determination not to marry she was deeply in love at one point in her life with a man who loved her and fully supported her aspirations. When he dies in an accident at age thirty-eight, she seals the door to that part of her life and immerses herself in her work. As her fame and reputation grew she became close to a very elite segment of European culture, one that clashed with her earlier group of friends. The latter were artists and bohemians while the former were aristocrats—many of whom were very close-minded in their views. When Chanel’s empire is threatened by her relationship with an influential Jewish family she lets her personal fears dictate her stance on the Nazis and becomes a collaborator. It is this unflinching honesty in sharing the best and worst of Chanel that gives Mademoiselle Chanel credibility beyond the standard fiction. Aided by careful research, Gortner delves into the true woman with all her flaws and baggage. His embroideries on the cloth of her life are as perfectly executed as the stitches she herself made when constructing a garment. Whether you are a fashionista or not, Mademoiselle Chanel is not-to-be-missed reading.