‘The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons From the World’s Most Elegant Woman’ by Karen Karbo
Coco Chanel is known for saying “a woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future” and “fashion passes, style remains.” But did she? Bons mots have been attributed to her because they seemed like the kind of thing the witty, sharp-tongued fashion icon might say.
As Karen Karbo writes with dazzled admiration in “The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons From the World’s Most Elegant Woman” (skirt!: 226 pp., $19.95), a certain un-pindownable-ness around Chanel (1883-1971) is pretty standard: “She was a master of misinformation, which is a nice way of saying she compulsively lied about her past, and then lied about having lied, and then disavowed the lie about the lie.”
Reading Karbo is like listening to a dear friend talk about the legendary designer over brunch. She starts with Chanel’s self-invention, moves through her coterie of lovers (who were also early bankrollers), her connected colleagues (Collette, Misia Sert, Jean Cocteau) and her rivals (including the men to whom she signed over much of the Chanel No. 5 perfume profits). It’s a chatty account, threaded through with Karbo’s quest to acquire a genuine Chanel jacket.
But without the clothes themselves, there would be no story. Chanel revolutionized women’s fashion -- fin-de-siècle ladies were pulled and corseted, poufed and fussy, with architecture needed to keep their voluminous hats afloat. By creating body-skimming designs and putting women in trousers, Chanel not only changed silhouettes but also how women could move through the world; in her clothing, women could reach and do for themselves.
Born in poverty and raised in an orphanage (not that she told people that), she turned her beauty, ambition and stylistic vision into an international empire. Then she closed her business during World War II, shacked up with a much-younger Nazi propagandist and, after the affair ended, as a 71-year-old (not that she told people that) returned to fashion.
Clearly, not all her life lessons should be followed. Those that might be are broken out here in cute Bible-esque tips.
For those who want to dig deeper, there are more formal biographies listed in an appendix; This is a fun, insightful look at the genius behind the little black dress. And if it lacks for visuals -- watercolor illustrations don’t do her designs justice -- use it to brush up before the biopic “Coco Before Chanel” hits screens Sept. 25.
-- Carolyn Kellogg email@example.com
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