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Staff Pick – Coco Chanel by Lisa Chaney

Coco Chanel: an intimate life by Lisa Chaney is certainly not the first biography written about the fascinating and controversial Gabrielle Chanel, but it’s an excellent place to start for someone like me who has not read much about her before.

Chaney presents a vulnerable side to Chanel who the world is likely to know as being a determined and successful designer and business person. Chanel was born out of wedlock in 1883. She was frequently abandoned by her parents first to relatives and then to a convent when her mother died when she was a young girl, and this feeling of abandonment was to follow her throughout her life. The nuns did her the favour of teaching her to sew beginning her on the road to her great success. Chanel created clothing that flattered the female shape and freed them from the need for corsets, although Chaney points out that most women would need some kind of corsetry to be able to pull off a sleek Chanel look.

Coco Chanel was to become as famous for her personal life and she was for her brand. Her affairs have been well-documented and recent books have delved into World War II – a most controversial time in her life. Hal Vaughan’s Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s secret war makes the claim that Chanel was no mere collaborator, but rather she was a Nazi spy who was spared prosecution only because of her friendship with Winston Churchill. Chaney softens this time in her life by claiming she was a pragmatist who did what she needed to do in order to preserve her business and maintain her lifestyle. Chaney’s argument falters a little when she acknowledges that Chanel’s relationship with Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage continued in some fashion long after the war when he would have ceased to be of use to her.

Gabrielle Chanel, as described by Lisa Chaney, left me thinking about Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Emma Harte in he first book A Woman of Substance, in which of young woman of humble origins achieves great success in the business world through sacrifice and determination. An engaging read about a woman who had a remarkable impact on the twentieth century.

Of interest also would be this biography of Chanel’s sometime friend Colette.

Colette’s France: her lives, her loves by Jane Gilmour

“A lavishly illustrated biography of the lively and often controversial life of Colette, the French writer, artist, and intellectual. Colette’s France is a beautifully illustrated biography of French writer Colette, a key figure in French radical, artistic, and intellectual life in the early twentieth century. Told through the locations in France where she lived, worked, and loved, her lively life story moves along through her many different relationships and homes—from Burgundy to Paris to Brittany to St. Tropez and more—revealing her deep and personal love of France and the natural world. Colette’s life and writing spans a special time in French literary history, the renowned artistic period of Belle Époque Paris. Her companions were the great French writers, artists, actors, and intellectuals, and her life plays out against a backdrop of great creativity and style, liberation and rebellion.” publisher

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