There have been numerous books written about Coco Chanel over the years but The Real Coco Chanel by Rose Sgueglia covers new and very interesting ground. As would be expected from any biography of Chanel, the book explores the course of the designer’s life, from her troubled and poverty-stricken upbringing to the opening of her first hat shop. There are also chapters focussing on the Chanel Maison and the creation of her iconic double ‘C’ trademark, the ‘little black dress’ and her iconic perfume, Chanel No 5. But the book also explores how Gabrielle Coco Chanel chose to live her life as a romantic heroine fuelled by nineteenth century literature and symbolism, and her inclination to regularly employ part myth and part fact when describing her life. This book debunks some of those myths, uncovering and revealing some surprising and unexpected truths.
The author’s genuine passion and knowledge for her subject also comes across, and her detailed research helps to remind us of what a formidable and creative businesswoman Chanel was, even if her fortune was impossible to track. Mademoiselle Chanel, although a public figure for more than half a century, was also a very secretive woman and thus her character is a constant dichotomy. Here, rumours of Chanel as a Nazi spy are also investigated. She had an affair with a German officer after the Nazis took over Paris in 1940; Chanel became close to Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, an officer in Abwehr, the German military intelligence. Their romance enabled Chanel to move into comfortable living quarters at Paris’ Hôtel Ritz, then doubling as a German headquarters. It also kept her firmly entrenched in high society, which also had been infiltrated by German officers.
The Real Coco Chanel also documents the designer’s many love affairs with high profile intellectuals, including the composer, Igor Stravinsky. She engineered her life so that she was connected with all the leading artists, politicians and personalities of her time, and yet the biography also reveals a shy and sensitive side to Chanel who was also drawn to all things mystical.
There are also some fascinating extracts from letters and conversations with friends, including her friend, writer Paul Morand:
‘What did I know about my new profession? Northing. I didn’t know dressmakers existed. Did I have any idea of the revolution that I was about to stir up in clothing? By no means. One world was ending, another was about to be born. I was in the right place: an opportunity beckoned; I took it up. I had grown up with this new century: I was therefore, the one to be consulted about its sartorial style. What were needed were simplicity, comfort and neatness: unwittingly, I offered all that. True success is inevitable’.
If you are looking for a lavishly illustrated book focusing on Chanel couture, this may not be the book for you, but if you are interested in trying to demystify the woman behind the myth, this is a wonderful place to start.
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